The Chief Coroner's Guidance on COVID-19

The Chief Coroner's Guidance on COVID-19 (No.34) here was issued on 26 March 2020 and reinforced on 27 March 2020 with further guidance (No.35) here. It is helpful to be read in conjunction with the Chief Coroner’s COVID-19 Note #3 here. It is intended to be the main piece of guidance for all coroners.

The message overall is that coroners have discretion and judgement to exercise in various respects, which they can be expected to exercise in a pragmatic way taking account of the effects of the pandemic.

However, it also makes clear that a Coroner’s Court should be open for “urgent and essential business only” and further, “absent a coroner a court is not a court”.

The reinforcement of this latter aspect tends to suggest approaches have been made to the Chief Coroner, following his Guidance no34, questioning the need for a coroner to be physically present in a Coroner's Court in order to conduct a hearing.

The response is a clear and unequivocal … yes.

The Coronavirus Act 2020 (CA 2020) received Royal Assent on 25 March 2020 and the commencement regulations came in on 26 March 2020 . The key sections for practitioners are: section 18 and schedule 13 (registration of deaths and still births etc), section 30 (inquests) and section 55 (public participation in proceedings conducted by video or audio). 

Key points relevant to Inquest hearings:

Key points relating to C19 as a cause of death meriting investigation:

Key points relating to PMs

Key points relating to deaths in prison or otherwise in state detention

It is interesting to note that the guidance in the coronial jurisdiction on remote hearings is potentially more restrictive than that issued out of the civil jurisdiction as the former requires a coroner to be present in court. The guidance out of the civil jurisdiction approaches the principle of open justice / public hearings slightly differently (§8 and 9) and suggests that the principle of open justice can be achieved in a number of ways: one person (not just the judge) relaying the audio or video to an open court room, allowing accredited journalists to log in to the remote hearing or permitting live streaming of the hearing over the internet.

The reason given by the Chief Coroner for this distinction is that civil hearings are governed by the Civil Procedure Rules which have a greater flexibility as to who is present and these Rules are not emergency legislation.