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.