Chief Coroner’s updated COVID-19 guidance

With the end of “Plan B” COVID-19 restrictions, the publication of the Chief Coroner’s updated guidance note no.34 relating to the COVID-19 response, and backlogs which need to be addressed, will we see a change in the way inquests are being managed in practice?

Here we highlight the key elements of the updated guidance which may lead to a change in practice by Coroners:

  • A possible death arising from exposure to COVID-19 in the workplace is reportable to the Health and Safety Executive and to the Coroner. Where the Coroner has “reason to suspect” that “human failure” in the workplace contributed to the death, then there will be a duty to investigate. The subjectivity of the threshold “reason to suspect” will of course be open to wide interpretation and could easily result in an increase in cases proceeding to inquest, particularly those deaths arising from employees in NHS and care settings.
  • The provision of Personal Protective Equipment will be an issue which may fall within the scope of the investigation. This will depend upon the Coroner’s discretion and decided on a case-by-case basis. The guidance reminds Coroners that their investigations must be “full, fair and fearless” but also reminds them not to stray beyond the circumstances of the death in to matters of public policy. It is easy to see how this may lead to a range of practices.
  • There are likely to be more multi-organisation issues arising during investigations and clear lines of communication will be imperative.
  • On a practical note, there is clearly both a backlog in postponed hearings, and the potential for a sharp increase in hearings (due in part to the issues highlighted above), which may see a rise in workload for clinicians required to assist in Coronial investigations. The guidance reminds Coroners to recognise primary clinical commitments of medical professionals involved and encourages them to consider evidence being provided by video link or being admitted under Rule 23, where appropriate.

Overall, while parts of the guidance are open to interpretation by individual Coroners, it is quite possible that we will begin to see a rise in both full inquest hearings and the number of issues falling within scope, which will inevitably increase the workload of all involved in the process.

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