Re HM Senior Coroner for North West Wales (2017) EWHC (Admin) 4 October 2017 (no transcript yet available) 

When unidentified human remains were found on a Welsh beach in 1994 the cause of death was unascertained: the inquest returned an open verdict with the deceased unknown. However, tissue samples had been retained and advances in forensic science had recently allowed a DNA profile match to the brother of a woman who had disappeared in 1994. The circumstantial evidence strongly indicated that the deceased was his missing sister.

It must have been beyond question that these new facts and evidence made a further inquest that would now properly identify the deceased both necessary and desirable in the interests of justice.   The problem facing the Senior Coroner was that because an inquest had already been held the coroner was “functus officio” and had no power to quash the original inquest.

The cumbersome mechanism under s.13 Coroners Act 1988 for quashing a previous inquest now had to be followed to allow a fresh investigation to commence under s.1 CJA 2009. This involved the Coroner first making an application to the Attorney General, waiting for his authority to be given (under a fiat) before an application to the High Court under s.13(1)(b) could be made.

 Is it seriously considered that a Senior Coroner’s own application will ever be unmeritorious? 

It is no surprise that the A-G, followed by Lord Justice Treacy and Mr Justice Dingemans all readily agreed to a fresh inquest being held. Perhaps the only surprise is that it required a Divisional Court of two judges to consider the matter.

 This case is yet another example of time and money being unnecessarily spent before the obviously correct thing can be done. A s.13 application to the High Court can only be made “by or under the authority of the Attorney-General”. It is not unknown for obtaining that permission to take over 4 months in the most simple and clear of cases.

Permission stages in court applications, such as the fiat required here, are of course a good mechanism for weeding out frivolous, ill-founded or unmeritorious applications at an early stage. But is it seriously considered that a Senior Coroner’s own application will ever be unmeritorious?  The delay inherent in the fiat process merely extends the waiting for families and increases administrative costs for coroners.  The time must have come for revision of the legislation so that a Senior Coroner no longer needs the Attorney General’s permission to make a s.13 application.

R (Heinonen and Sawko) v Senior Coroner for Inner South London [2017] EWHC (Admin) 1803 (judgment here)

It is often distressing for a bereaved family to contemplate their loved one being subject to a post-mortem examination, even in the context of a wish to have the cause of their death explained.  When the resultant autopsy report contains an inaccurate physical description of the deceased, that thereafter remains unexplained, it is unsurprising that a family would seek further investigation of the matter by the Coroner.

However, in a case that provides a clear reminder of the high hurdle claimants must surmount to establish that a coroner’s decision is unreasonable (in the Wednesbury sense), the Administrative Court has upheld this Coroner’s refusal to open an investigation under s.1 CJA 2009, even though significant discrepancies between the description of the body examined and the deceased’s physical characteristics remained unexplained and further avenues that might have more firmly established the identity of the body had not been explored.

“I hope that an apology and some explanation as to how it came about will be forthcoming, I have no power so to order. I can merely express a hope that that will happen in due course”.   Andrews J

R (Maguire) v Assistant Coroner West Yorkshire [2017] EWHC 2039 (Admin) 14 August 2017 (judgment here)

The horrific murder of Mrs Ann Maguire, a school teacher stabbed in her classroom by a 15 year old pupil, justifiably shocked the Nation. Now that William Cornick has pleaded guilty to her murder (and been sentenced to a minimum of 20 years’ detention) Mrs Maguire’s inquest will be resumed; but first the controversial issue of whether some of the school’s pupils tangentially caught up in the events should be called to give evidence at the inquest has had to be resolved.

“The distress of a young witness is not necessarily a reason why that witness cannot or should not give oral evidence.”

Following the murder some pupils had revealed in police interviews what they knew of Cornick’s actions in the period before the killing. These “interviewed pupils” reported how Cornick had at times behaved strangely, making morbid or sick jokes. He had expressed a wish to kill teachers and very shortly before the killing made specific statements about killing Mrs Maguire. Only one pupil had reported this behaviour to a teacher, but by then the murder had just been committed. Most of the other pupils did not take the threatening remarks seriously and so did not report them, assuming he was merely showing off. The one pupil who did take the threats seriously said nothing out of concern that if he did so it may provoke Cormick to attack him. After the killing that pupil had reflected “It’s like I could have stopped it. I did nothing.”

The Claimants (her widower and other members of Mrs Maguire’s family) wanted these “interviewed pupils” called so that the inquest could hear evidence as to the students’ understanding of the school rules relating to weapons in school and whistleblowing, and, for those who had taken no action, to explain why this was. The Claimants emphasised they did not seek to ascribe any blame or criticism to any pupil, but rather wished to minimise the risk of any similar horror occurring in the future. They wanted the inquest to explore lessons to be learned as to how children might be encouraged and supported to share concerns with trusted adults.

R (Scarfe & Ors) v Governor HMP Woodhill & SoS Justice [2017] EWHC 1194 (Admin) (23 May 2017)  judgment here

HMP Woodhill has achieved the unenviable status of having the highest rate and the highest number of self-inflicted deaths of any prison in the entire prison estate. Thirteen men have died there since 2013 at their own hand, seven of those in the last year. The eleven inquests that have recently been held in the Milton Keynes Coroner’s Court have produced several critical jury findings and a number of PFD1 reports yet the alarming death rate has persisted.

It is unsurprising then that the families of some of the deceased, believing effective changes have not been made, turned to the High Court for action. They argued that the High Court should use its public law powers to ensure that the repeated failings noted in these successive cases were no longer tolerated.

The Woodhill Prison Governor and the Justice Secretary made it clear that they shared the great concern of the Claimants, the Court and other commentators (such as INQUEST who intervened in the proceedings) about the rate of suicides in prisons generally, and at HMP Woodhill in particular. The difficulty for the Claimants, however, was establishing the extent to which the identified problems at HMP Woodhill were capable of solution by means of their application for an order or declaration from the High Court.

R (Gudanaviciene) v Immigration and Asylum First Tier Tribunal [2017] EWCA Civ 352, 11 May 2017 - judgment here

All humans make mistakes, Coroners included. Fortunately for any Coroner reading this, so long as you are merely human (and not flagrantly improper) and you don't seek to defend your errors, then you should not be ordered to pay the successful applicant’s costs of reversing your poor judgment or bad decision-making.

The Court of Appeal considered whether a judicial body should be ordered to pay the costs of a successful application to judicially review its decision where it took no part in those judicial review proceedings.

The Grenfell Tower fire shows the need to give coroners' recommendations more teeth.

On 28 March 2013 the coroner, after verdicts were returned on the deaths of six people in Lakanal House in 2009, made important and potential life saving recommendations - see for example bit.ly/2s85JZL . (These were made under then rule 43 - now the Coroners (Investigations) Regulations 2013 reg 28 and 29).

R (T) v HM Senior Coroner for the County of West Yorkshire [2017] EWCA Civ 318  judgment here

A young woman arrived at A&E with her mother. They were carrying a shoebox. Inside the shoebox was the body of a baby girl.

The baby’s mother, aged 19, had kept her pregnancy a secret and delivered the child alone, in her bedroom six days earlier. She said she never heard a cry and did not know whether the baby had been born alive. She hid the body in a shoebox under the bed. Three days later her mother had discovered the box. The women then kept the events from other family members and waited out the weekend before taking the body to hospital.

Examinations by a pathologist and specialist neuro-pathologist left the death unexplained: there was no identified natural disease or injury. Nor could they decide whether the baby was alive at birth. The CPS reached the view that there was insufficient evidence to charge anyone with a criminal offence. The woman’s initial allegation that her conception had followed a rape was withdrawn after police investigations revealed a consensual sexual relationship.  

When the Coroner proposed to hold an inquest into her baby’s death the young woman brought a case to the High Court, arguing that the Coroner had no such power and that her identity should be kept anonymous. She lost decisively on both counts.

"the conduct of the Claimant was not in any sense a private matter” 

Shaw v Leigh Day (A firm) [2017] EWHC 825 QB (judgment here)

Attention family representatives! Absolutely nooo pressure at all, it's just that if you don’t get your client the closure they want out of an inquest, now you can be sued for damages for causing them distress. That is the effect of this recent High Court decision.

The tweetie-birds-round-head inducing litigation saga is set out in more detail below. In a nutshell, Mrs Shaw's elderly father had a cardiac arrest following complications of a trans aortic valve procedure (TAVI). She instructed Leigh Day, one suspects on a private basis (although this isn’t clear from the decision), and there was an Article 2 inquest at the end of which the jury concluded that the death was an unintended result of a therapeutic procedure and made no criticisms of anyone.

The inquest left Mrs Shaw dissatisfied and, so far as she was concerned, lacking answers to key questions. Even though there has been since been a successful negligence action against the hospital and the surgeon, the High Court has now cleared the way for her to claim £5,000 for mental distress from Leigh Day caused by what she says is the poor job they made of getting disclosure and representing her at the inquest.

R (Duggan) v Asst Coroner North London and (1) Metropolitan Police Commissioner (2) Serious Organised Crime Agency (3) IPCC (4) DS Belfield (5) DC Faulkner (Interested Parties)  [2017] EWCA Civ 142 (judgment here)

Mark Duggan’s fatal shooting by Metropolitan Police officers gave rise to widespread public disorder across the country. The inquest jury’s finding that the cause of death was “lawful killing” has, unsurprisingly, remained matter of public debate and given rise to several legal challenges.

The Court of Appeal has now held that:

“There is nothing in either domestic legislation or the jurisprudence of the ECHR which requires that, in every case where a self-defence justification is raised at an inquest, a specific direction must be given to the jury that, in deciding whether a belief of imminent threat was honestly and genuinely held, the reasonableness or unreasonableness of that belief from the viewpoint of the person claiming the defence is a relevant consideration.”

R(Ferreira) v HM Senior Coroner South London [2017] EWCA Civ 31 (26 January 2017) (judgment here)

Reading about the 1888 Victorian Railway Commissioners case when studying for the bar I always wondered what it might look like if the ‘floodgates’ so fiercly guarded by judges in those old judgments were actually prised open. Well now I know.

The combination of the Mental Capacity Act ‘Deprivation of Liberty Safeguards’ and the Supreme Court’s 2014 Cheshire West[1] decision have produced a legal tsunami that has deluged the Court of Protection. This has been followed very closely by a smaller but equally damaging tidal wave that inundated Coroners’ Courts once holding an inquest into the death of any person who was the subject of a MCA DOLS authorisation was deemed mandatory.    

If the appellant had won this present case, and a death in a NHS hospital due to the physical illness of someone lacking capacity had amounted to a death when deprived of liberty (so in state detention), and therefore required a jury inquest, then the already swamped Coroners Courts might have finally submerged.  

Happily, however, the watery metaphors can now dry up, as a combination of the Policing and Crime Bill (soon to be given Royal Assent) and the Court of Appeal’s most recent common sense judgment in the Ferreira case have firmly rebuilt the levee around the Coroners’ Courts, handing a few sandbags to the Court of Protection at the same time.