Grieving families waiting a year to find out how loved-ones died as £210k plea made

Staffordshire's top coroner has asked for a £210,000 funding boost - as the county is seeing a record number of bereaved families waiting a year or more to find out why their loved ones died. Andrew Barkley, senior coroner for Staffordshire and Stoke-on-Trent, says the area needs a third, full-time area coroner, costing £182,000 a year, to help meet the growing demand for lengthy inquests into local deaths.

Increasingly complex cases and requests for more detailed investigations from families has resulted in the existing coroners service being unable to meet demand, leading to a lengthy backlog and increasing complaints. The service, which is currently made up of three full-time coroners and seven assistant coroners, is jointly funded by Stoke-on-Trent City Council and Staffordshire County Council, costing taxpayers £2.3 million a year.

Mr Barkley made the case for the extra area coroner, along with a part-time personal assistant costing a further £28,000, to councillors on the coroners joint committee. He told them that the service, as a part of the judiciary, had no choice but to meet the demand that came through the door. It currently handles around 5,000 deaths and 1,000 inquests each year.

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Mr Barkley said that while the increase in inquest complexity was a national trend, Staffordshire was particularly affected by the issue of deaths in custody, with eight prisons in the county, as well as the presence of the Royal Stoke University Hospital, a regional trauma centre.

He said: "The number of cases being referred in hasn't radically changed. But what has changed beyond recognition is the sheer complexity we're dealing with. We're dealing with far more elderly patients, far more technical medical deaths, we're dealing with families who are far less accepting of a service, which may have been acceptable five or 10 years ago.

"It's not unusual now to walk into an inquest that was previously done in half-an-hour to an hour, and that has now turned into a two day hearing. That's because the family has very real concerns over the care their loved one received, and the failings that they believe contributed to the death. A coroner has to listen to those. It's enormously resource intensive.

"The other big issue that is unique to Staffordshire, is that it has, I believe, the highest prison population of any other jurisdiction in England and Wales. With prison deaths, even if they're due to natural causes, it's quite common to face families who are legally represented by experienced, specialist counsel."

The service's caseload currently includes 31 prison deaths, at least half of which will require a jury inquest, meaning more than 150 days of sittings. Mr Barkley said that hiring a full-time area coroner, while expensive, would be more cost effective than taking on additional assistant coroners as and when needed, as they would be able to deal with a wider range of cases.

He added: "There's a statutory responsibility to complete inquests in six months, and we now have a record number of cases, as a result of the backlog, which are now over 12 months - that's the highest it's ever been in this area. That's the result of simply not having enough resources."

The joint committee agreed to ask officers to prepare business cases for the additional area coroner and PA posts, with the final decision on funding the roles to be taken at a later date.

Committee vice-chair Victoria Wilson said that while she understood the issues faced by the coroners service, councillors had to be certain that the extra spending was justified, having been forced to make millions of pounds of cuts to front line services in recent years. She said: "I absolutely understand the difficulties you face and this decision won't be taken lightly. For me, to go to my cabinet, and say we want this extra funding to come out of the medium term financial strategy, we do need more information. I understand where you're coming from, and I will convey that to the cabinet."

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