V v Associated Newspapers Ltd and others [2016] EWCOP 21

In November 2015 the Court of Protection determined that an adult woman had the mental capacity to decide whether or not to refuse the life preserving medical treatment offered to her.   She exercised her right to autonomy, refused treatment and died.    

Such capacity decisions are made on a regular basis in the Court of Protection (CoP) – however this particular decision in relation to ‘Ms C’1 has attracted perhaps more widespread media attention than any other Court of Protection case before it.  That reporting has been characterised by the Vice President, Charles J, as:

“reporting that engaged the prurient interest of the public in the personal details of the lives of others, rather than the public interest in important issues relating to [the court’s finding of capacity to decide and its consequences].”   

The back-story of Ms C’s life and her personality is clearly of the type that sells newspapers.  Ms C is now know to many as the “sparkling socialite” and pixelated pictures of her have appeared in both the broadsheet and tabloid press with epithets such as “man-eater” and “obsessed with sex” in the accompanying headlines.  

Reporting restrictions were, unremarkably, made at the time of the original CoP case. However, what makes this case unusual is the family’s subsequent application for the press injunction to be continued after Ms C’s death and to cover press reporting from her inquest. 

Inquests often reveal matters that are of concern but which are unlikely to give rise to a risk of future deaths and so fall outside the reg. 28 “Report on Action to Prevent Future Deaths” provisions (the ‘PFD report’).  Yet it is often overlooked that where the duty to make a PFD report does not arise, the coroner still has another tool in their public health kit and may nevertheless draw attention to a matter of concern arising during the investigation by writing a letter expressing that concern to the relevant person or organisation who can act upon it. 

Known as a ‘Paragraph 37 Letter’ such a step is proposed and approved by the Chief Coroner at paragraph 37 of his Guidance No. 5 (Reports to Prevent Future Deaths); yet it is only rarely used. 

Ewing v Cardiff and Newport Crown Court [2016] EWHC 183 (Admin)

Bereaved friends and other members of the public often take notes of the evidence given in Coroner’s Courts.  Whilst Coroners can dictate much of the practice and procedure within their own courts, the recent case of Ewing in the criminal jurisdiction has clarified that it is only in very limited circumstances that restrictions should be placed on observers taking notes in public hearings and that no express permission to take notes is required.

“Although the Court may, for good reason, withdraw the liberty to take notes, the default position is that anyone who attends a public hearing is free to take notes.”

R (Speck) v HM Coroner for York & (1) NHS England (2) MEDACS (Interested Parties) [2016] EWHC 16   

In a case which serves as a reminder that an inquest should not be seen as a substitute for a public inquiry, the Admin. Court has held that, where a coroner conducting an Art 2 inquest decides that a factor could not even arguably be said to have made any real contribution to the death, then there is no discretion, or indeed power, to investigate that issue.    Coroners’ investigatory powers arise from their statutory duty under the Coroners and Justice Act 2009 s.5 and their discretion is limited to investigating only those factors that might arguably have contributed to a death.

It would be “wrong in principle” to “go into issues of policy and resources with which an inquest should not be concerned”.

Today the Chief Coroner published new guidance on Pre-Inquest Review Hearings (PIRHs) and revised guidance on coroner's conclusions (Guidance No.17 (as amended)). 

The newly published guidance on PIRHs reaffirms the guidance already provided in the cases of: Brown v HM Coroner for Norfolk [2014] Inquest Law Reports 91, Shafi v HM Coroner East London [2015] Inquest Law Reports 154 and Fullick v HM Coroner for Inner London North [2015] EWHC 3522. It encourages: PIRHs in complex cases, circulating agendas in advance and, if relevant, advance notification of the coroner's provisional views on the respective issues. 

The amended guidance on conclusions addresses the sometimes hotly contested questions of (1) what, if any, difference remains in law between a non-Article 2 v. Article 2 conclusion (2) whether a non-Article 2 conclusion is permitted in law to be judgmental and (3) is the coroner’s power in an Article 2 inquest to leave to a jury, for the purposes of a narrative conclusion, possible circumstances restricted to only where those findings will assist the coroner in a PFD report? 

Flower v HM Coroner for Devon, Plymouth, Torbay and South Devon [2015] EWHC 3666 (Admin) 16 December 2015

In a welcome clarification of the extent of a Coroner’s powers to re-open an inquest after having decided not do so, the Divisional Court has confirmed that, where an investigation has been suspended pending criminal proceedings, and a Coroner has determined that it should not be re-opened, the Coroner is not functus officio and so can revisit and change their own decision. Indeed the High Court has no jurisdiction to order an inquest under s13(1)(b) Coroners Act 1988 in such circumstances. 

There had been no inquest and hence there were no inquest findings to quash.

Re Jordan's Applications for JR - Delay & Damages [2015] NICA 66

From the inquest that just keeps on giving a further judgment of the Northern Ireland Court of Appeal (‘NICA’) has been published concerning the award of damages under the Human Rights Act as compensation for the continued delays in bringing to a conclusion the (still unfinished) inquest into the death of Pearse Jordan who was shot by an RUC officer on the Falls Road in 1992.

“The investigation into the death of a close relative, impacts on the next of kin at a fundamental level of human dignity. It is obvious that if unlawful delays occur in an investigation into the death of a close relative that this will cause feelings of frustration, distress and anxiety to the next of kin”. Stephens J

A huge number of legal decisions, including more than 25 Judicial Review applications have already arisen from the procedural inadequacies in investigating this death. In 2001 an award of £10,000 as compensation for the delay up to that point was made by the European Court in Strasbourg, which called into question whether the Northern Irish inquest system was, at the relevant time, structurally capable of providing for both speed and effective access for the deceased’s family. 

R (Fullick) v HM Coroner for Inner London North [2015] EWHC 3522 (Admin) 3 Dec 15

Susan Jones died after falling ill at a police station after she had attended the station voluntarily as a witness.  An alcoholic, homeless and on methadone, she was vulnerable and police statements made it clear that the officers felt they owed her a duty of care: as the Chief Coroner put it, “at the very least she needed looking after”. Having given an interview, Susan was waiting for a specialist team to attend.  While waiting she placed her head on the table and appeared to fall asleep, being heard snoring. She was left for some time, checked once, but not roused. Nearly two hours later, officers realised she was not breathing. An ambulance was called and CPR commenced, but she died in hospital just over a week later.

The Coroner’s initial decision not to hold her inquest with a jury was overturned by the High Court, comprising the Chief Coroner and McCombe LJ.

‘Reason to suspect’ is a low and objective threshold: suspect’ means suspicion: ‘a state of conjecture or surmise.’

Jones v HM Coroner for Gwent and others [2015] EWHC 3178 (Admin) 5 Nov.15

The Divisional Court this week made clear the limits of s.13 Coroners Act 1988 when seeking to overturn and inquest.  Where Judicial Review is the correct vehicle to challenge the decision of a Coroner then the failure to bring such a claim in good time should not be circumvented by an application for a fresh inquest under s.13.

Elberte v Latvia ECtHR App.No. 61243/08 13 April 2015

Next month the Human Transplantation (Wales) Act 2013 comes in to force. Described as the most significant piece of legislation passed by the Welsh Assembly, it will make Wales the first UK country to introduce a ‘soft opt-out’ system for organ and tissue donation. From 1 December 2015 a deemed consent system will operate for organ donation where the presumption will be that people aged 18 or over, who have been resident in Wales for over 12 months, want to donate their organs at their death, unless they have specifically objected.  

This Act has laudable objectives and is anticipated to save countless lives through a 25% rise in the availability of organs for transplant.  

However, those who favour an opt-in system warn of the excesses that can happen if state control and oversight of such a system is lax. Such risks were shown in stark detail in a recent European Court of Human Rights decision involving Latvia, where shocking abuse of a ‘presumed consent’ system was revealed.