When a family loses a loved one in unclear or unexplained circumstances, there is one thing that family members need above all else: answers. How did their loved one die, and could their death have been prevented?

Rachel Rothwell

Rachel Rothwell

The Coroner Service is there to answer these questions. But in his annual report published in December, the chief coroner Judge Thomas Teague (pictured) revealed the extensive delays now occurring in the coroners’ courts. In April 2021 more than 5,000 families waited over a year for the coroner to complete their investigations. This was a staggering increase on pre-pandemic figures, with 2,278 cases having lasted more than 12 months in 2019. And while figures from April 2022 suggest the backlog is gradually reducing (with 4,568 cases taking more than 12 months), it is clear that far too many families are still facing agonising delays, sometimes lasting several years.

Judge Thomas Teague

In any normal year, proceedings in the coroners’ courts can be delayed by outside factors; for example because the coroner needs to wait for other investigations – by the police or the health and safety executive for instance – to conclude. But there is no doubt that the impact of the pandemic has made things much worse.

In November, the Commons justice committee launched a new inquiry into the Coroner Service, with its call for evidence closing this month. Among other things, the cross-party committee of MPs will examine what progress has been made in relation to the recommendations it made following its previous inquiry, conducted during the 2019-21 session of parliament, which focused on improving bereaved people’s experiences of the Coroner Service.

Why do delays in coroners’ courts matter so much? The longer it takes for a coroner to reach conclusions about how someone died, the greater and more prolonged the agony for family members; and the heavier the emotional burden on other individuals who may be called to give evidence in proceedings. But perhaps even more worryingly, the more time that passes, the more difficult it is for the coroner to get to the truth. Memories fade and evidence is lost or degraded. Not only is this unfair on the parties involved, but it is also bad for the wider public, as important lessons about how future deaths can be prevented are not learned.

So as we move into 2024, with the pandemic a diminishing dot in the rear view mirror, can we expect a big improvement in the performance of coroners’ courts? The answer to that is likely to vary considerably depending on where you are in the country.

The coroners’ courts are unusual in that they are not a national service. Coroners are appointed and funded locally, with the cash coming from the local authority. This leads to huge disparities in the facilities and levels of service available – something that Teague referred to in his annual report. The chief coroner, who recently conducted a national tour of coroners’ courts, acknowledged that many local authorities provide a good level of funding and high levels of support. But he said he had seen some ‘regrettable’ examples of authorities failing to provide an ‘acceptable’ level of funding. He added: ‘Where such failures are accompanied – as all too often they are – by a lack of interest in, or understanding of, the important public service the coroner system provides, they manifest themselves in court offices that lack the necessary organisation and resources to thrive, and that suffer from staff retention problems and a lack of overall capability.’

The government has rejected the idea of creating a national coroners’ service, as the justice committee had previously recommended. But while individual coroners’ courts are left to depend on funding from overstretched local authorities, many bereaved families will continue to find themselves waiting far too long for the answers they so desperately seek.


Rachel Rothwell is editor of Gazette sister magazine Litigation Funding, the essential guide to finance and costs.

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