Ministry of Justice
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2010 to see historic changes to the coroners' system

The government has today set out the next steps to reforming the coroners' system, including plans to appoint the first ever Chief Coroner.

As well as the appointment of the Chief Coroner in spring, the Ministry of Justice will release a consultation in March, asking for views on the policy details of the new system.

This will be followed in the autumn by the appointments of a National Medical Adviser to the Chief Coroner, and a National Medical Examiner. The new system is expected to go live in April 2012.

Working with the Ministry of Justice and those who work within the current coroners' system, the Chief Coroner will help develop better coroner investigations and inquests, with higher and more consistent standards of service, and fewer unnecessary delays. Alongside this, the Department of Health will be developing measures to simplify and strengthen the process of death certification in England and Wales.

Introduced in the Coroners and Justice Act 2009, these are most fundamental changes to the coroners' system in more than 100 years.

Justice Minister Bridget Prentice said:

'We are reforming the coroners’ system to put families at its heart. For those who have lost loved ones, accessing the right information and support at the right time can make a real difference in finding resolution.

'That is why we are creating a new Chief Coroner and developing national guidelines to establish consistent levels of service – so that members of the public will know what they can expect if the death of a loved one is reported to the coroner.'

Health Minister Ann Keen said:

'The system of death certification in this country has remained largely unchanged for over 50 years, and the weaknesses and anomalies in the current arrangements were highlighted by the Shipman Inquiry.

'The changes we are making will provide for a more transparent, proportionate and consistent system of death certification that will provide greater protection for the public and improve local public health surveillance.

'The improved process is currently being piloted in several locations in England and Wales to ensure that the arrangements necessary to establish cause of death are as simple as possible and do not add to the distress of families at what is always a difficult time.'

The changes to the coroners' system will help prevent backlogs for both military and non-military inquests, as investigations can now be transferred from one coroner area to another that is less busy, closer to the families, or where the coroner may have developed particular expertise in the type of death being investigated. There will be clear standards, developed in consultation with bereaved families, so that all families receive the level of service they are entitled to expect. Knowledge gained from every death investigation will be retained and shared more effectively for the prevention of further avoidable death and injury. The Chief Coroner will also preside over an appeal system for bereaved families and others who are unhappy with a coroner’s decision.

The Department of Health changes include the introduction of a unified system of death certification for both burials and cremations. Primary Care Trusts in England and Local Health Boards in Wales will be required to appoint medical examiners to provide an independent scrutiny of causes of death in all cases not investigated by the coroner. A statutory post of National Medical Examiner will also be created.

There is also provision in the legislation for the establishment of a judicial inquiry under the 2005 Inquiries Act to take the place of an inquest, where there is relevant highly sensitive evidence, typically intercept, which cannot be made public. These provisions will be used very rarely. 

Notes to editors

  1. The Coroners and Justice Bill was introduced in the House of Commons on 14 January 2009 and enacted on 12 November 2009.
  2. For further information, please contact the Ministry of Justice newsdesk on 020 3334 3536.
  3. The changes to the Coroners system and Death Certification arrangements will take place in the following stages:
  • Spring 2010 – appointment of Chief Coroner/issue of Ministry of Justice and DH consultation papers seeking views on policy detail
  • Autumn 2010 – appointment of National Medical Adviser to Chief Coroner (Ministry of Justice appointment) and National Medical Examiner (DH appointment, to preside over new death certification arrangements)
  • Spring 2011 – Ministry of Justice and DH consultations on proposed new secondary legislation (takes account of and builds on March 2010 consultation)
  • April 2012 – new arrangements go live (although appeal system likely to be piloted with a view to being rolled out nationally in April 2013)

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