Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Think again, please

We may have read the name, or seen fictitious representations on TV detective series. But, fortunately, most of us have had no personal involvement with one important public servant – the Coroner.

The local coroner is one of the oldest public positions, having been first established in the 11th century. On our behalf, the coroner is responsible for investigating sudden, unexpected, suspicious and violent deaths, which is limited to determining who the deceased was, and how, when and where they came to their death. .

The present legal framework for coroners was largely created in 1887. Most of us recognise that society and medical knowledge have moved on quite a lot since then, and the limitations of that framework have been regularly questioned over the last fifty years.

However, the need for reform was highlighted by the Shipman Inquiry (in 2000, Harold Shipman, a Yorkshire general practitioner, was found guilty of murdering 15 of his patients, but the inquiry established that he probably committed some 250 murders), inquests into the 2005 London terrorist attacks, and British military service deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The role, responsibilities and accountabilities of the coroner were also challenged during the Hillsborough Inquiry and will undoubtedly be the subject of more debate in the light of the release of all the papers to the Panel, chaired by the Bishop of Liverpool.

Following wide consultation and reviews, there was all-Party support for the 2009 Coroners and Justice Act, with most of its provisions to be implemented by 2012. At the centre of the reforms was the establishment of a Chief Coroner with responsibility for leadership in setting a new national framework and standards, supervision and training, accountability and appeals.

The proposals had and have the backing of a wide range of interested organisations – from the Royal British Legion (representing service personnel) to the Stillbirth and Neonatal Death charity – as well as from doctors, lawyers and politicians across the spectrum.

However, the government has now decided to abolish many of the proposals, including the position of Chief Coroner. The British Legion has called the decision “a deep betrayal of service families” and “a breach of the Military Covenant”.

So, in the week of Remembrance Day, I simply ask David Cameron to think again.