The newly appointed chief coroner has outlined plans to reduce the number of coroner areas in the England and Wales by at least a quarter.

In his first annual report to lord chancellor Chris Grayling, Judge Peter Thornton QC said structural changes are needed to merge smaller areas. Last July the Ministry of Justice merged 19 coroner areas in England and Wales to create nine new areas.

Thornton said the remaining 99 coroner areas should be reduced further, to around 75 or fewer.

At present, 60% of coroner areas have fewer than 2,000 reported deaths a year, and Thornton said most senior coroners should deal with between 3,000 and 3,500 deaths to make the service viable.

He added: ‘The lord chancellor has the power to combine, or merge, coroner areas after consultation. In order to create more efficient, more cost-effective working units, the chief coroner is making progress with the MoJ to merge smaller areas.’

Thornton said talks have been held with a number of local authorities asking them to consider a merger, with ‘several’ of them interested.

Thornton said he would like to increase the role played by assistant coroners in each coroner service. He has told senior coroner he expects assistants to be given at least 15 days’ work a year and to be part of a local team of coroners.

‘Too often in the past there have been assistant coroners on the books who have played little or no part in the work of the local coroner service,’ he added. 

‘At the same time some new assistant coroners have been appointed and trained but given no work. Some have been given work but no pay. Some have been given work which has been called training, also without pay. That is not good enough. ‘

The report says progress has been made in reducing delays, but this can be improved further.

Of the 220,000 deaths reported to coroners each year, around 95,000 of those cases will involve a post-mortem examination.

Thornton said this figure was ‘too high’ and he encouraged coroners to make enquiries to establish whether a finding of death by natural causes can be made without the need for a post-mortem.

The chief coroner has also written to all coroners reminding them of the duty to set dates for inquests at the opening of an inquest, and to direct for a medical report to be produced within four to six weeks.

Thornton said he has ‘repeatedly stressed’ the need in training and discussions for setting dates and having timely hearings.

Recent decisions, he added, following complaints against coroners made to the Judicial Conduct Investigations Office, show that a delayed inquest may lead to formal disciplinary action.

The chief coroner will also be writing to all senior coroners asking for an explanation why investigations that have taken more than a year have not either been completed or discontinued.