Ministry of Justice
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Government strengthens plans for non-jury inquests

Government strengthens plans for non-jury inquests

MINISTRY OF JUSTICE News Release (037/09) issued by COI News Distribution Service. 17 March 2009

Strengthened proposals for non-jury inquests that allow for more judicial involvement and discretion were announced today by the Government.

The Coroners and Justice Bill, currently before Parliament, contains proposals for non-jury inquests in exceptional circumstances where highly sensitive material which may be relevant to a coroner's investigation cannot be made public. Inquests are only conducted with juries in two per cent of cases and the Government expects these new provisions to be used very rarely, but without these plans the occasional inquest might be stalled - as happens now.

Today, the Government revised the proposals following concerns raised as the Bill went through Parliament. The revisions are a considerable strengthening of the current plans as they narrow the range of circumstances where an inquest could be certified; increase judicial involvement and discretion, and offer more checks and balances.

Justice Minister Bridget Prentice said:

"Inquests seek to establish the facts of a death - when the State is implicated in the death, this can only be done when there is access to all the relevant information in a case. Currently, this cannot happen in all cases because it would rely on making highly sensitive information public. With these proposals the Government is seeking to balance the proper function of an inquest with the need to protect sensitive information.

"The Government has listened carefully to the concerns raised following the publication of these proposals. Today's revisions significantly strengthen the plans by narrowing the already limited circumstances where such an inquest could be sought; increase judicial involvement and offer more checks and balances on the process."

The Government's changes:

Tighten the criteria for certification so that the Secretary of State may only certify an investigation if satisfied that it is necessary to do so in order to protect the interests of national security, relations with another country or preventing or detecting crime, or to protect the safety of a witness or other person. This raises the threshold compared with the existing formulation - "is of the opinion that".

Remove the ability to certify an investigation on the grounds of preventing 'real harm to the public interest'. This was too broadly drafted.

Strengthen judicial involvement in the certified inquest by ensuring that the High Court judge who will be appointed to hear the inquest would have discretion to determine what measures were needed in order to prevent the sensitive matter being made public. This could include holding the inquest without a jury. However, it might be that the inquest could fulfil its statutory purpose, including meeting Article 2 obligations, without hearing evidence about the sensitive matters.

Introduce more checks and balances because the decision by the Secretary of State to certify an investigation would be subject to judicial review and the decision by the judge to hold, or not to hold, the inquest without a jury would be subject to appeal.

Strengthen the requirements to notify interested persons by removing this from the Secretary of State and placing the requirement on the coroner.

Notes to editors:

1. Clauses 11 to 13 of the Coroners and Justice Bill set out the proposals for non-jury inquests.

2. Media Enquiries: Ministry of Justice Press Office on 0203 334 3536

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