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Lockdown coroner courts backlog leaves families waiting more than a year for verdict

Coroners Court in Horsham, West Sussex
Coroners Court in Horsham, West Sussex

Lockdown backlogs in coroner courts have left thousands of bereaved families waiting more than a year to find out how and why their loved ones died.

Official figures show that nearly 5,000 families have had to wait at least 12 months for an inquest to be held in order to establish the circumstances and cause of their loved ones’ deaths.

This is double the number before the pandemic with a third of them being forced to wait more than two years before securing a verdict on their loved ones’ deaths.

Solicitors specialising in representing bereaved parents said it lengthened families’ anguish and could also undermine justice because witnesses would be less likely to be able to recall the detail of events.

The figures were revealed by the chief coroner Judge Thomas Teague in his annual report where he admitted the delays were “concerning” with some areas facing “large” backlogs.

He said they largely stemmed from the chaos caused by the Covid pandemic when inquests had to be adjourned because of restrictions to combat the spread of the disease.

But he also criticised some local councils for “unacceptable” levels of funding that compounded the problems that coroners faced in trying to reduce the backlogs.

‘Retrieval of evidence less likely’

Inquests are supposed to conclude within six months of a death but his figures showed the number of cases older than a year was 4,568, double the rate of 2,278 before the pandemic. The numbers waiting more than two years have quadrupled from 378 in 2017 to 1,760 in 2022.

Jennifer Ellis, a solicitor specialising in inquest investigations at the law firm Bolt Burdon Kemp, said it was not just due to the pandemic but reflected a steady “stagnating” since funding cuts in 2014 started to bite.

She warned it could undermine the integrity of inquests because of a decline in the reliability of evidence over time. “The wait for closure can be agonisingly painful and can prolong a grieving family’s anguish as they’re left in limbo,” she said.

“Aside from the additional distress and heartache endured by bereaved families subjected to a delayed inquest, it seems unlikely that a delayed inquest would uncover the same degree of reliable evidence as an inquest conducted in a timelier fashion.

“Inevitably, an inquest proceeding years after the event may examine witnesses who are vaguer in their recollection of events calling into question the credibility of their accounts.

“In addition, the retrieval of dependable evidence identified through cross-examination is less likely. In essence, the existing delays in the coronial system are impeding the proper administration of justice. This will inevitably lead to a loss of faith in the coronial system.”

‘Unacceptable’ levels of funding

Judge Teague said: “It is concerning that the number of cases over 12 months within the system has increased during the period covered by this report [2021 and 2022].”

He said he remained “concerned” at the level of resources provided by councils in some areas as well as their understanding of judicial independence.

During a national tour of coroner courts, he said he “encountered some regrettable examples of authorities failing to provide an acceptable level of funding”.

“Where such failures are accompanied – as all too often they are – by a lack of interest in, or understanding of, the important public service the coroner system provides, they manifest themselves in court offices that lack the necessary organisation and resources to thrive, and that suffer from staff retention problems and a lack of overall capability,” he added. “I continue to work with a number of areas to resolve these serious problems.”

Some 36,273 inquests were opened in 2022, an increase of 11 per cent from 2021 and the highest number of inquests opened since 1995.

A government spokesman said: “We are determined to ease the burden on grieving families and have taken decisive action to reduce coroners’ caseloads which increased as a result of the pandemic.

“This includes changing the law to make it faster and easier to establish a death is from natural causes without the need for a post-mortem and investing £6.15 billion to help local authorities’ services, including coroners, recover.”

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