Quill pens and ink pots: an opportunity lost?

Chief Coroner’s Guidance No. 38: Remote participation in Coronial proceedings via video and audio broadcast

Twelve weeks into the brave new world of working, the Chief Coroner has issued guidelines designed to help coroners conduct hearings with physical distancing in mind. 

One can’t help thinking we are missing an opportunity to drive change. Of course, through no fault of his own, the Chief is constrained by the current law.

I would also venture to suggest, coroners and local authorities might benefit from a bit of imagination to help get us through.

The Dos and Don’ts

You can read the guidance here. Essentially:

  • Coroners must sit physically in ‘open court’. No conducting hearings from the study, the garden or summerhouse.
  • No one else need be physically present in court. Though, I suspect, they can be if they want to be and (I am sure it goes without saying) people will be conversant with and apply the current government guidance.
  • Witnesses and interested persons can participate by video link.
  • Live broadcast or streaming of proceedings is forbidden.
  • The coroner may permit the public (and the press) to listen in through ‘audio lines’.
  • No recording may be made by anyone, except of course, by the coroner.
  • Juries cannot participate by video link.

On a positive note

While it has always been possible for witnesses to give evidence by video link, this has happened rarely. The default position of every coroner has always been, if a witness needs to be heard then they must come to court. Inconvenience and professional obligations are all too often ignored. On too many occasions, I have sat in court with upwards of a dozen nursing and medical witnesses from a particular ward all sat there from 10.00 am on a Monday morning  and not able to ‘move’ until released by the coroner. Four or five days lost with all the damage that does to the provision of safe patient care. Why do this, it is not a trial after all?

Advocates for interested parties will now have powerful arguments to stop this in the future. This is a significant erosion of the basic principle that a witness must appear in person.

Stuck in the past

What is clear from this guidance is, in fact, how little things have changed in the conduct of inquests since the nineteenth century.

The proceedings in the Supreme Court can be broadcast and recorded. If it is good enough for them why are we not moving towards this for coroners’ courts? Is that not fundamental to the principle of open justice during these difficult times?

It is clear that the Chief Coroner is struggling with the principle of open justice. Public access is fundamental but, dare I say, is in some trouble. The idea that separate ‘audio only lines’ be made available is fraught with difficulty. If the press and public are not allowed access to the video conferencing and the ubiquitous ‘Microsoft teams’ hearings, the added technical hurdle of providing separate audio lines seems so unnecessary. All too complicated at both ends of the line. I know from personal experience. 

It is insanely boring to listen only and not watch. It is harder to gauge and understand what a witness is saying and the veracity of their evidence if you cannot see them.

Swimming pools and football grounds. What is a court room?

If more delay to inquests and, particularly, to jury inquests is to be avoided and backlogs cleared, I venture to suggest a little imagination is in order. Not just by coroners but also by the funding local authorities.

However it is important to recognise the solemnity of the proceedings and the fact that families and loved ones often attend inquests.

It is possible to find venues now that could facilitate a jury inquest. In our experience, although some jurisdictions are tentatively listing jury inquests way into the future, too many are not.

In the past our inquest team have appeared in many interesting ‘court rooms’.  A wedding venue festooned with flowers. A leisure centre complete with a view of pensioners doing acquarobics in the pool and that smell of chlorine reminiscent of school swimming lessons. The banqueting suit of a football ground with the unmistakable odour of stale beer but a beautiful view of the pitch.

Why do I say this?  There is no mention in the guidance to help with venues that might facilitate hearings while maintaining a safe physical distance – even for a jury. That might have been helpful to coroners and especially if they need to engage with their funding local authorities to find suitable accommodation – and do it now!

An opportunity lost. I fear, as things stand, money to find a safe place to hold a hearing will not be forthcoming. Plus c’est change.

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