Imagine working at the Ministry of Justice. Returning this week after an extended holiday, you find your department paralysed. Nothing seems to be happening.
Remember the Prisons and Courts Bill introduced last February? Those clauses that senior judges said were ‘essential’ if court reforms costing £1bn were to be delivered successfully? That bill lapsed after the general election was called but a new Courts Bill was promised in the Queen’s speech more than six months ago. And where is it now? Last seen in Downing Street – in a pile marked ‘too difficult’.
Buried lower down the pile is the review of coroner services launched in October 2015. When the consultation period closed two years ago, the ministry promised to respond ‘in early 2016’. As Judge Lucraft QC, the chief coroner, laconically noted in a report published in November 2017, ‘the government’s promised review of the coroner service is still awaited’.
We all know it will report widespread calls for a national coroner service. That reform is supported by Lucraft and his predecessor Sir Peter Thornton QC.
But not by the government. At the moment, coroners are appointed and paid by local authorities. Salaries are set locally and we have no idea how much individual coroners earn. Bringing coroners and their staff into the courts and tribunals service would certainly increase the cost to the MoJ. But it would be a relatively small increase in the overall judiciary budget and the money could be recouped from local authorities if necessary.
Creating a national coroner service would also mitigate some of the problems we have recently seen in London. Those problems are made much worse by the way in which coroners are disciplined for misconduct.
Let’s start with the senior coroner for inner north London, Mary Hassell. I wrote about her in the Gazette in November 2015 (tinyurl.com/ybrmdwge), reporting a case in which she was found to have adopted the wrong legal test in deciding whether an invasive autopsy was required.
According to an exchange of correspondence recently reported by the Jewish Chronicle, Hassell’s policy is that ‘no death will be prioritised in any way over any other because of the religion of the deceased or family, either by coroner’s officers or coroners’. That policy is arguably unlawful on the ground that a decision-maker must not fetter her discretion. It is certainly inconsistent with the declared policy of the chief coroner. And it causes great distress for people whose cultural and religious backgrounds preclude grieving and healing until after a loved one has been buried.
Barry Davis, a well-known populariser of the Yiddish language, died in University College Hospital on 14 December at the age of 72. Though the cause of death was not immediately clear, there was no suggestion that it could have been avoided. Family members flew in from Australia and California for what they hoped would be an early funeral. After many requests to Hassell’s office, they were told on 19 December that the postmortem examination would not take place before 27 December. Following media enquiries, the coroner then arranged an autopsy on Friday 22 December and the funeral took place two days later.
Hassell never speaks to reporters. But in 2015 the Mail on Sunday reported that she had written to her local authority, asking how they intended to protect staff ‘from bullying, intimidation and the threat of violence’ by members of the orthodox Jewish community. More than a year later, the lord chancellor and lord chief justice reprimanded Hassell for misconduct, saying her decision to disclose a private letter to the media had ‘demonstrated a serious jack of judgement’. But you will search in vain for that finding on the Judicial Conduct Investigations Office (JCIO) website. The JCIO’s commitment to transparency in such cases – tenuous at best – expires after a year.
Hassell might have had an easier time if she had not been appointed coroner for the area with the largest number of Jewish residents in England and Wales – as well as many Muslims. The obvious answer would be to move her to the nearby west London area, whose coroner was suspended on full pay for more than a year while the JCIO investigated his behaviour. But for that we would need a national coroner service.
The JCIO announced on 21 December that Chinyere Inyama, senior coroner for west London, had been reprimanded for serious misconduct after he was found to have bullied one member of his staff and made ‘remarks’ to another. Hammersmith and Fulham Council said the JCIO had taken more than two years to investigate numerous concerns. The council expressed its ‘extreme disappointment’ at Inyama’s reprimand and said it would be seeking legal advice. He is no longer suspended.
Local councils appoint coroners but cannot sack them. Just like the ministry, they are paralysed.