Inquests will be completed in six months
A new code of standards for coroners means most inquests in England and Wales will be completed within six months.
The legal framework launched by the Ministry of Justice follows complaints that bereaved families in some areas have had to wait years for a hearing. The MoJ says it will end "past inconsistencies”.
Justice minister Helen Grant said she wanted to see “all coroners delivering the same efficient service across the board”.
Coroner's courts investigate the medical cause of death if it is unknown, appears to be unnatural or as a result of violence, or if it happened in custody. Inquests aim to establish who has died, and how, when and where the death occurred. They are not trials, and so do not determine civil or criminal liability.
Each year more than 30,000 inquests are held in England and Wales and individual coroners have, up to now, been responsible for holding hearings "as soon as practicable".
The office of coroner dates back to 1184 and coroners are independent judicial office-holders, appointed and funded by the relevant local authority. Once appointed, a coroner is answerable only to the High Court for his or her judicial and administrative decisions.
The revamped service will be overseen by the first chief coroner Judge Peter Thornton QC.
All 96 coroners will also be subject to mandatory training requirements.
Inquests can be delayed by factors, such as waiting for criminal proceedings to be completed but, under the new rules, coroners will have to complete inquests within six months of being informed of a death "or as soon as is reasonably practicable after that date".
Any inquests that last more than a year must be reported to the chief coroner.
The rules also mean coroners will have to release the body to the bereaved family as soon as they can, or inform them if it is going to take longer than 28 days. Some faith groups – especially Muslims and Jewish people – had voiced concerns about releasing bodies for funerals.
Coroners will also have to notify the bereaved within a week of setting the date for the inquest and provide greater access to documents and evidence, such as post-mortem reports, before the inquest takes place.
The new laws will also allow coroners to permit less invasive post-mortem examinations - another concern raised by faith groups.
However, some concerns remain, as coroners are funded by local authorities and it will be challenging to maintain the new standards in the face of cuts to local services.
Also, campaigners worry that bereaved families would not be able to appeal to the Chief Coroner over the decision of a coroner. The only appeal lies to the High Court by way of judicial review, which can be both time-consuming and costly.
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