High Court gives guidance on the handling of pre-inquest review hearings

Alison  Hewitt  represented  the  Chief  Constable  of  Norfolk  in  Brown  v  HM  Coroner  for  Norfolk  and  the  Chief  Constable  of  Norfolk  Constabulary  [2014]  EWHC  187  (Admin) (Pitchford LJ, Judge Peter Thornton QC).

In the context of an application under section 13 of the Coroners Act 1988, as amended, for an order quashing an inquest and ordering a fresh one, the Court made recommendations on the handling of pre-inquest review hearings.

In summary, the Chief Coroner stated that a pre-inquest review hearing, where held, was an important stage. In each case, the coroner should ensure that all interested persons, particularly bereaved families, had sufficient notice of the matters to be discussed. Coroners should provide a written agenda in advance and, if appropriate, express provisional views so that agreement or opposition could be expressed. The agenda should include, particularly in the more complex or difficult cases, the following: a list of interested persons; a proposed list of witnesses, identifying those who might be called and those whose statements might be read; the issues to be considered at the inquest; the scope of the evidence; a statement as to whether a jury would be required; a statement as to whether the European Convention on Human Rights 1950 art.2 was engaged; any issues of disclosure; the date of the final hearing; and any other relevant matters. In a complex or difficult investigation, interested persons should be invited to respond to the coroner’s agenda in advance of the pre-inquest review hearing in writing, stating what they agreed with and what they disagreed with. The coroner should also ensure that interested persons, particularly those who were unrepresented, had sufficient disclosure of relevant statements and documents before the hearing so as to be able to address the agenda on an informed basis. In the instant case, the claimant’s view of the pre-inquest review hearing was that the coroner had made up his mind what the outcome of the inquest would be. Coroners should avoid giving the impression at a pre-inquest review hearing (and in any documentation supplied before it) that the findings and conclusions of the inquest were in any way predetermined, even when the evidence pointed substantially in one direction. It might be necessary to explain in clear language to unrepresented families that there was a difference between seeking to identify the key issues and reaching a final conclusion. Another of the claimant’s complaints was that shortly before the hearing he heard two key police witnesses in a private room with the coroner discussing the case. Coroners should at all times take care in their dealings with interested persons not to give the impression of bias or favouritism. Coroners might need to communicate to police officers investigating on their behalf, but their communications, whether oral or written, should be made in such a way that they would not engender concern to others that their interests were being treated as secondary. A coroner should therefore be careful in correspondence with an interested person, such as the police, not to appear to be too familiar with or close to the correspondent; he should also not encourage familiarity from the correspondent, even though he might have got to know the correspondent well in the course of his work as a coroner. Coroners should only write letters (and emails) in the course of their work which would stand the test of looking fair and unbiased if read out in court in litigation (see paragraphs 39 to 44 of the judgment).

 

Alison Hewitt has expertise in all aspects of Coronial law. Alison was recommended for Inquests by Chambers UK 2014 which comments “She has a very effective and consensual approach. She is well known and well liked by coroners.”