Posted by Ali Cloak, Partner
High Court case stresses the importance of Pre-Inquest Review hearings
In the recent case of Brown v HM Coroner for Norfolk the Chief Coroner, HHJ Thornton QC gave some much needed guidance on Pre-Inquest Review hearings, which will hopefully ensure consistency across the country for bereaved families.
The instant case concerned an Application for an Order quashing an inquest but the Judgment contained helpful clarification of how Coroners should manage proceedings prior to the inquest hearing itself.
The role of the Pre-Inquest Review Hearing
Pre-Inquest Review hearings, known as ‘PIRs’, allow the Coroner and interested parties to plan the procedure for the inquest hearing. Interested parties are those allowed to participate in the investigation, whether by law (such as a family member or someone implicated in the death), or with the Coroner’s permission.
Pre Inquest Review hearings can be very helpful in narrowing the key issues, ensuring all key documents are produced and ensuring interested parties are properly informed and prepared for the Inquest. In more complex cases there may be several Pre-Inquest Review hearings before the inquest hearing. However, historically the use of such hearings would depend entirely on which Coroner was appointed in any given case.
Some Coroners made extensive use of PIR hearings, using them to actively case manage the inquest and to ensure that all interested parties were actively involved in the process and were clear on the salient issues. Conversely, some Coroners rarely made use of them and, when they did hold one, they were not used to good effect.
One of the key goals of the new Chief Coroner, who was appointed in September 2012, was to improve consistency of the coronial system in England and Wales.
In the case of Brown v HM Coroner for Norfolk the Chief Coroner, his Honour Judge Thornton QC, provided helpful guidance on what constitutes good practice at Pre-Inquest Review hearings. Some of the key points of guidance are set out here:
- All interested parties, particularly bereaved families should be provided with sufficient notice of matters to be discussed at a PIR.
- Coroners should provide a written agenda in advance of a Pre-Inquest Review hearing.
- The agenda should be tailored to the individual case but is likely to include the following, particularly in the more complex cases:
- List of interested persons
- Proposed list of witnesses, identifying those who may be called to give evidence orally and those whose statements may be read
- The issues to be considered at the inquest
- The scope of the evidence
- Whether a jury will be required
- Whether the inquest matter engages Article II of the European Convention of Human Rights
- Disclosure issues
- Proposed date of the final inquest hearing
- The Chief Coroner stated that Coroners should ensure that all interested persons have sufficient disclosure of relevant statements and documents prior to the PIR taking place. This is particularly important where a party is unrepresented.
- The Chief Coroner noted the importance of ensuring that there is no impression of bias or favouritism. He stated that a Coroner should be careful in correspondence with an interested party so as not to appear too familiar to the correspondent, even though they may have become familiar with one another through the course of the Coroner’s work.
Pre-determining the outcome
- The Chief Coroner reiterated the detriment of an interested party feeling as though the Coroner had formed a conclusion as to the outcome of the inquest prior to the hearing taking place. Coroners should therefore avoid giving the impression that the findings and conclusions of the inquest are in any way pre-determined, even where evidence points substantially in one direction.
The Chief Coroner’s comments in this case provide helpful recommendations for Coroners conducting Pre-Inquest Review hearings and will hopefully encourage wider and more consistent application of the use of such hearings and ensuring all interested parties are on an equal footing.
Withy King’s inquest lawyers, who represent bereaved families at Inquests across England and Wales, welcome the guidance from the Chief Coroner, which can only serve to reinforce the importance of effectively managed Pre-Inquest Review hearings. In our experience inquests progress much more efficiently, and often to better effect, where the investigation has been well managed by the Coroner from the outset.
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