Two inquests reported in the press recently have confirmed the principle that, whatever the jurisdictional overlap, the Coroner’s statutory duty to hold a public inquest cannot be easily overruled.
On 5 October 2015 Assistant Coroner for Nottinghamshire, Andrew McNamara, handed down a judgment in which he declined to make a reporting restriction order in respect of the inquest into the death of MA. The case was subsequently nationally reported, despite the confirmed prosecution of one of the witnesses by the Health and Safety Executive.
Giving judgment against the application, under section 4(2) Contempt of Court Act 1981, the Assistant Coroner drew from the guidance given by the Judicial College in Reporting Restrictions in the Criminal Courts, April 2015, which stressed the exceptionality of such restrictions. In the absence of any ‘clear and cogent evidence’ of the ‘magnitude’ of the risk to the administration of justice, no order was made.
Earlier on in the year, the judicial review case of Senior Coroner for Cumbria v Ian Smith (former Senior Coroner for Cumbria) 2015 showed that, even where the inquest overlaps with very sensitive, private family law proceedings, a public hearing of the evidence must be held.
This inquest had concerned PW, a 13 month old girl who died following acute injuries. The finding within family law proceedings had been that PW’s death was ‘unascertained.’ At the inquest held later on that year the Coroner called no evidence and adopted the finding of the family court judge, making no finding as to how PW died.
Upon review, the High Court noted that there is no framework in statute which governs the relationship between family law proceedings and inquests. However, there was guidance from the Chief Coroner on this point. The High Court was satisfied that the coroner’s duty to conduct a public investigation and make clear findings as to the cause of death had not been discharged. The record of the inquest was quashed and a new inquest was ordered.
Therefore, whether an inquest overlaps with the jurisdiction of the criminal or family courts, , it appears to be increasingly difficult to derogate from the principle that evidence in inquests is open to public scrutiny.