Posted by Ali Cloak, Partner
What is the effect of Coronavirus on ongoing inquests and coroner’s investigations
Coronavirus is having a major impact on nearly all aspects of our lives. But what if you were already due to have an inquest hearing to find out how a loved one died? What do you do if you were awaiting information from the coroner just before the outbreak?
This blog is intended to give some general information about what we have been seeing happening with coroner’s investigations and inquests over the last few days. We hope it will help not only our clients but those families who may not have legal representation and are wondering what is going to happen next.
What happens if my inquest hearing has already started?
Where an inquest has already started then the coroner should have explained what processes are going to be put in place to either adjourn it and re-hear it on another day or to continue whilst being able to adhere to the government’s safety guidelines.
In some of our inquests, where the evidence has already been heard and no new witnesses need to attend, the coroner and the parties have agreed that the final legal arguments and coroner’s conclusions can be heard by telephone hearing. This has meant that the hearing did not get postponed mid-way through and there has only been a limited delay for the family in receiving the conclusion of the inquest whilst telephone hearing facilities have been organised.
What happens if I have a hearing listed in the next 3 months?
How inquest hearings proceed will depend on the system in place in your local coroner’s area. The Chief Coroner issued some guidance for coroner’s on 19 March 2020, however, each area has its own Senior Coroner who will decide on the specific measures in place for cases within that area.
If your hearing is an inquest where a jury is involved, then this is very likely to be adjourned (postponed). The Chief Coroner has stated that all jury inquests between March and 28 August should be adjourned.
Following the government’s guidance on 23 March 2020 it is very likely that all non-jury inquests will also be adjourned. Some non-jury inquests may go ahead by telephone if there is no evidence to be heard by witnesses or where the court’s facilities are such that telephone hearings can take place effectively and the issues at hand are not considered complex. If you have been told that a telephone hearing will take place for an inquest but you do not feel that you will be able to participate effectively, then do speak to your coroner’s office and raise your concerns as early as possible.
You should receive a call from the coroner’s office explaining if a hearing has been postponed or changed to a telephone hearing, however, if you have not heard anything then do contact them by email or phone to find out what is happening with your hearing.
Where our clients’ inquest hearings have been adjourned, no new date has yet been set for them. We envisage that no new dates will be listed before September 2020 at the earliest and coroners are unlikely to be setting new dates at this time as they will not want to risk having to adjourn them again if the restrictions currently in place are extended.
Pre-inquest review hearings
We are seeing that a number of pre-inquest review hearings are going ahead, but being converted to telephone hearings. This is where the coroner’s court has the facilities to have telephone hearings and all parties can join by telephone. This allows the hearings and investigation to proceed without any hindrance to the parties.
If you have been told that your PIR has been converted to a telephone hearing but you are unable to attend for any reason, then please make your coroner’s office aware of this at the earliest stage.
What happens if I have a hearing longer than 3 months away?
As you will no doubt be aware, the situation with Coronavirus has been changing day-by-day and therefore, it is hard for coroners to know how long restrictions will be in place and whether they will be able to continue with hearings that are meant to be heard in July or even further away.
As stated above, inquests that were due to be held with a jury up until 28 August are being adjourned, however, those from 1 September will keep their dates for the time being.
For non-jury inquests, currently we are seeing that no decisions are being made about hearings later than July at this time and it is a case of ‘wait and see’ before getting further guidance from coroners’ offices about whether these hearings will also be postponed or can go ahead.
What if the coroner has begun investigating but I don’t have a hearing date?
If a coroner has contacted you to let you know that they are investigating the death or your loved one but no inquest hearing or pre-inquest review hearing date has been set then it is likely that no date will now be set for a number of months.
Their work collecting in documents and evidence relating to the death should still continue, however, there could well be delays in coroners’ offices being able to obtain medical records from hospitals, prison records from prisons and post mortem reports from pathologists due to the wider effects of the virus, such as hospitals being overwhelmed, pathologists being called for more post-mortems and prisons being on lock-down and with lowering staff resources due to the virus.
What if I need more information?
The picture is changing rapidly so for up-to-date information we recommend seeking advice from the Coroner’s court or your solicitor.
Should you wish to discuss your inquest case with me or one of my team, please do contact us.
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