Only lawyers will be appointed as coroners from next June, the first holder of the new post of chief coroner for England and Wales has announced in his first public speech.
Judge Peter Thornton QC told the annual conference of coroners today that new appointments will be for five years, with coroners retiring at 70.
The provisions do not apply to existing coroners, though a doctor serving as assistant coroner would need the necessary legal qualification to step up a level to senior or deputy coroner. Thornton outlined the changes to the role in a 10-point plan based on the Coroners and Justice Act 2009, which is due to come into force from June 2013.
All fresh appointments will be made by the relevant local authority, with the consent of the chief coroner and the lord chancellor – ending the practice of senior coroners making their own appointments. In an unspoken reference to the resignation of the coroner who presided over the Amy Winehouse inquest, Thornton made it clear that spouses or partners will not be permitted to be appointed in the same area.
He added that coroners will retain judicial independence but will be expected to work collaboratively with their local authority.Training of coroners and coroners’ officers will be taken over by the Judicial College, having previously been the responsibility of the Coroners Society.
Where complaints are made, Thornton said he would not take responsibility for their handling as it could place him in the position of having to lead and discipline coroners at the same time.
Addressing the coroners’ conference, he said: ‘I suspect you would be the first to admit that the coroner system is not perfect. And many of you, talking to me, have acknowledged that there is a lack of consistency, a lack of leadership and a lack of guidance. ‘I intend to address these problems.’
The role of chief coroner has been the subject of lengthy debate at Westminster after it was first confirmed in May 2010.Jonathan Djanogly, then justice minister, announced in October 2010 that the role would be scrapped, only for the government to reprieve the post a year later.
Thornton was appointed in May 2012, having presided over the inquest into the death of newspaper vendor Ian Tomlinson during the G20 protests in London in 2009.