Updated guidance on Inquests during Covid-19 crisis
Following on from our earlier briefing which covers the potential impact for witnesses attending forthcoming Inquests, the Chief Coroner has now published detailed guidance which provides more clarity on the position. We set out a summary below.
The guidance states that no physical hearing should take place unless it is urgent and essential business. It must also be safe for all those involved. It follows that it is highly likely that many scheduled Inquests will now be adjourned to a later date; unlike adjournments in usual circumstances, the new dates are likely to remain uncertain for the time being.
When dealing with medical professionals in their work generally (including matters of evidence in inquests), the Chief Coroner makes clear that Coroners should recognise the primary clinical commitments of such professionals, especially at times of high pressure on health services. This also applies to pathologists who will be under significant pressure at the current time. Coroners are required to consider the increased workload of healthcare professionals. They will need to decide whether it is reasonable to ask witnesses to attend to give evidence during these unprecedented times. This, together with the fact that a hearing must be urgent and essential, means that many Inquests are likely to be delayed significantly.
The Chief Coroner’s guidance also makes clear that all hearings that can take place remotely should do so. In such cases, witnesses will be asked to give evidence via video link or telephone to minimise risk. Again, this will only happen if the hearing is considered urgent and essential by the Coroner.
Another way in which Inquests will be conducted is as ‘Rule 23 hearings’. What this means in practice is that instead of witnesses attending and giving oral evidence in court, relevant statements which have been disclosed to the Coroner will be admitted as evidence in the inquest by the Coroner.
Other COVID matters relevant to Inquests
COVID-19 is an acceptable direct or underlying cause of death for the purposes of completing the Medical Certificate of Cause of Death (MCCD). The Chief Coroner has confirmed that COVID-19 as a cause of death (or contributory cause) is not a reason on its own to refer a death to a Coroner under the Criminal Justice Act 2009. Each case must be taken on its own merits, if any clinician has any concerns we suggest that they seek the advice of their manager who will need to consider whether legal advice should be sought.
It is important to remember that Coroners remain obligated to open an Inquest in the event of a natural death in prison or otherwise in state detention. This includes COVID-19 related deaths. It remains important that deaths in custody or otherwise in state detention are scrutinised carefully.
Ultimately whether a hearing can continue or not, and in what form, is a matter for the Senior Coroner responsible for the Court covering the area where the death occurred and the Coroner dealing with the case. We remind those with any questions about the Guidance that many solicitors in our firm have vast inquest experience and we would be delighted to advise any healthcare professional who needs clarification on any issues concerning the Coroner’s jurisdiction and inquests generally.
This briefing is for guidance purposes only. RadcliffesLeBrasseur LLP accepts no responsibility or liability whatsoever for any action taken or not taken in relation to this note and recommends that appropriate legal advice be taken having regard to a client's own particular circumstances.