The COVID-19 pandemic presents a range of significant issues for Coroner’s Courts and organisations which have ‘Interested Person’ status. Coroner’s Courts face similar challenges to other courts and tribunals in relation to ensuring the health and safety of court users. Of course, many organisations with ‘IP’ status will be under significant pressure delivering medical and social care at a time of unprecedented need. Frontline clinical staff will be required to prioritise direct patient care and many other staff may find themselves urgently redeployed into crucial support roles. As a result, organisations may understandably find it very difficult to make staff available to draft statements and attend court to give evidence (remotely or otherwise).

We have compiled these FAQs for organisations in the healthcare, social care and emergency services sectors regarding how Coroners are approaching inquests in the current climate and how demands on organisations and their professional witnesses can best be managed. They are based on the queries already being raised by our clients and the support that we are giving.

Are inquests being adjourned?

The Chief Coroner issued ‘Guidance No 34: Chief Coroner’s Guidance for Coroners on COVID-19’ on 26 March 2020, which contains practical steps to be considered with respect to holding inquests and other hearings. This guidance adopts the advice already issued by the Lord Chief Justice in relation to all courts and tribunals. In short, no physical hearings should take place unless they involve urgent or essential business and appropriate social distancing can be ensured in the court and the court building. The Chief Coroner acknowledges that in many jurisdictions it will be difficult to ensure appropriate social distancing at court.

We are aware that some Coroner’s Courts have experienced individual circumstances, such as building closures and reduced staff numbers, which have resulted in all inquests being adjourned until further notice. Other courts are adjourning inquests on a case-by-case basis or reviewing cases to determine if any are appropriate to proceed as documentary inquests. Please contact the Inquests Team if you require any assistance with determining how the approach of your local Coroner’s Court may impact on upcoming inquests involving your organisation.

What is the approach to jury inquests?

Even before the release of the Chief Coroner’s Guidance No 34, he had already issued a ‘note’ advising that jury inquests which are due to start between 31 March and 28 August and are ‘of any significant length’ should be adjourned. In reality, this is likely to mean that most jury inquests will be adjourned to after 1 September.

What about inquests without a jury?

Long and complex non-jury inquests often involve large numbers of court users, including the bereaved family, the coroner and their staff, lawyers, witnesses, the press and the public. In such circumstances, it would potentially be difficult to ensure adherence to government guidelines regarding social distancing and COVID-19. Long and complex inquests which are due to begin between 31 March and 28 August are likely to be adjourned.

How are Coroners dealing with clinical staff who are called to give evidence?

The Chief Coroner’s Guidance No 34 states that Coroners should recognise the primary clinical commitments of medical and other healthcare staff in a time of unprecedented pressure on health services. In practice, this may mean avoiding or delaying requests for statements and accommodating clinical commitments if clinicians are to be called as witnesses.

In our experience, Coroners have been willing to agree that inquests involving frontline clinical staff be adjourned for the time being and the new guidance from the Chief Coroner certainly supports this approach. The new guidance also encourages Coroners to consider proactively reviewing outstanding PFD responses and offer extensions where appropriate and to take an accommodating approach to requests for extensions from healthcare organisations.

How is technology being used to hold hearings in the Coroner’s Courts?

Our experience has been that many Coroners are open to using technology to enable pre-inquest review hearings to go ahead. We have made several successful applications to hold pre-inquest review hearings by telephone. In some cases, Coroners have also agreed to investigate opportunities for less complex inquests to be held using video conferencing facilities in order to avoid clinical witnesses coming to court to give evidence and enable bereaved families to participate remotely. This is a new and evolving way of working for many Coroners and their staff. The Inquests Team is working closely with the courts and our clients to ensure that where technological solutions are available, they are appropriate for individual cases. Please get in touch with the Inquests Team if you have any questions or concerns about the use of technology for hearings in the Coroner’s Court.

Do deaths related to COVID-19 need to be reported to the Coroner?

The National Medical Examiner has released preliminary recommendations regarding the reporting of deaths due to COVID-19. The National Medical Examiner has advised that although COVID-19 is a notifiable disease under the Health Protection (Notification) Regulations 2020, referral to a Coroner is not required in all cases and COVID-19 is not on its own a reason to refer a death to the Coroner. COVID-19 is an acceptable direct or underlying cause of death for the purposes of completing the MCCD.

The Coronavirus Act 2020 gained Royal Assent on 25 March 2020 and states that COVID-19 is not a notifiable disease for the purposes of the requirement to hold a jury inquest.

If you would like to discuss any points raised in these FAQs further, please contact Georgia Ford, Tracey Lucas or Adam Hartrick.