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Coroners & Justice Act 2009

The Coroners and Justice Act 2009 received the Royal Assent on 12 November 2009. This newsflash comments on the main changes to the law of inquests introduced by the Act.

A copy of the Act can be downloaded here.

Section 47 of the Act, which came into force with immediate effect, introduces a statutory definition of an “interested person”. The definition is slightly wider than the previous definition of persons entitled to ask questions at an inquest. In particular, the definition includes any person whom the coroner “thinks has a sufficient interest”.

The other changes to coronial law introduced by the Act are not yet in force. They will come into force on dates to be notified by orders made by the Lord Chancellor and the Secretary of State.

The main areas of reform of relevance to health & safety practitioners are as follows.

First, the creation of the post of Chief Coroner and the introduction of a right of appeal on certain matters to the Chief Coroner. Section 40 lists the types of decisions which may be appealed to the Chief Coroner. These include whether an inquest should be held; whether the case should be heard with a jury; and the final verdict. Coroners’ case management decisions about the scope of the inquest and which factual and expert witnesses should give evidence are not included on the list. Judicial review will presumably continue to be the only mechanism for challenging such decisions, which can have important implications in practice.

Secondly, section 7 makes minor changes to the circumstances in which coroners must summon a jury. However, the requirement to summon a jury in cases in which the death was caused by a notifiable accident, poisoning or disease has been retained. A coroner retains a discretion to summon a jury in all cases but the discretion has been reworded so that, outside of those circumstances in which sitting with a jury is mandatory, a case should only be heard with a jury if the coroner “thinks that there is sufficient reason for doing so”.

Thirdly, coroners will have the power to require the disclosure of documents and the production of witness statements (see paragraph 1 of Schedule 5).

Fourthly, paragraph 7 of Schedule 5 sets out a coroner’s powers to report the matter to persons who can prevent, or reduce the risk of, a recurrence. These powers broadly mirror the amendments to the old Rule 43 introduced in July 2008 by the Coroners (Amendment) Rules 2008.

None of the changes referred to above were affected by late amendments introduced shortly before the Act was passed. The most notable late amendments were the requirement that coroners notify the Chief Coroner of all investigations not completed or discontinued within 12 months (section 16) and the requirement that the Chief Coroner’s annual report to the Lord Chancellor contains a summary of the number and length of such investigations and the reasons for their length (section 36).

Members of our Health & Safety and Regulatory Law team are happy to advise on any matters arising out of the new legislation.

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