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01 Sep 2020

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Human Rights

Can partially remote inquests start to ease the lockdown backlog?

Losing a loved one can be one of the most devastating and traumatic things you ever have to deal with - particularly if you are then faced with an inquest to investigate the cause of death. And for many bereaved families, this problem has been exacerbated during lockdown, as our Senior Associate, Craig Court, explains.

“Since lockdown began, most inquests in the UK have been postponed. The majority have been adjourned for several months, putting huge strain on bereaved families across the country. Even now that lockdown restrictions have begun to ease and social distancing measures are in place, it will clearly take some time for the courts to return to normal and we are aware of many inquests not being re-listed until April 2021 at the earliest.

“Clearly, everyone involved in the coroner’s court system appreciates how much prolonged trauma this delay is causing to the families of the deceased. In an effort to address this, the Chief Coroner issued a series of guidance notes during lockdown to advise how inquests should be held when they were able to go ahead.

“The guidance states that the coroner must be physically present in court at all times during a hearing and should never conduct wholly remote hearings. However, where the court is satisfied that it is just to do so, some partially remote hearings are now being held, where provision has been made for witnesses to give live evidence via video link. Whether someone is present physically in court or remotely will not affect the coroner’s determination of any issues that arise or any conclusion they come to.

“With the backlog of inquests still growing, the Chief Coroner is encouraging more of this type of partially remote hearing to be held, if the technology allows, to try and limit any further delays. Obviously, there are strict rules that need to be adhered to. For example, if coroners consider it appropriate to order a partially remote hearing, they need to give those affected an opportunity to make representations. Livestreaming or any visual or sound recordings of court proceedings is strictly prohibited, and all witnesses should dress formally and behave as they would if they were attending court in person.

“In some instances, even where inquests are taking place in court, family members or other interested parties are not comfortable about attending in person because of the risks posed by Covid-19. Most coroners are sympathetic to these circumstances and it is possible to write to the coroner to request a partially remote hearing where you can give your evidence remotely.

“While this move towards partially remote hearings is to be welcomed as it will mean the backlog of inquests can start to be dealt with and will make inquests much more flexible in future, it is of course reliant on the individual coroners’ access to the necessary technology.  Unfortunately, the delays during lockdown highlighted how poorly equipped most coroner’s courts were to deal with matters remotely, with many not even having the facilities needed for participants to dial in. The good news is that lockdown has prompted many courts to invest in their technology and bring it up to date, which will now hopefully help to get things back on track. We will be watching with interest to see if partially remote hearings will continue to be arranged when we get back to some sort of normality and the more frequent physical use of courtrooms resumes.”

Craig Court is regularly instructed in high profile inquests, including those where deaths have occurred in state detention or as a result of state failings. He specialises in bringing actions under the Human Rights Act and is a member of the Inquest Lawyers Group (ILG), a national pool of lawyers who are willing and able to provide preparation and legal representation for bereaved

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