Aside from the COVID-19 pandemic, a key theme of 2020 has been diversity and inclusivity. This two-part update addresses this theme in detail
The Covid-19 Pandemic has impacted all aspects of our lives, including the operation of Coroners and inquest proceedings. The lockdown restrictions have led to many inquest hearings being postponed. As the lockdown restrictions are eased, there is an increased pressure on Coroner’s courts to ensure hearings are conducted safely.
The latest guidance from the Chief Coroner addresses how this objective may be achieved through the use of remote hearings. The steps proposed will hopefully enable Coroners to hold a greater number of inquests, which in turn should reduce the number of delayed hearings and the impact that this can have on bereaved families.
Where witnesses working in key frontline services need to give evidence, the flexibility of giving evidence by video link will also minimise the disruption caused to their work at this challenging time.
The “Chief Coroner’s Guidance Note No.38: Remote Participation in Coronial Proceedings via Video and Audio Broadcast” was released on 11 June 2020 and makes the following key points regarding how remote hearings may be facilitated.
- The Coroner must be physically present in court at all times during an inquest hearing. An inquest hearing can, therefore, only be partially remote. This is necessary to ensure the inquest is public and satisfies the requirement for open justice.
- It is the Chief Coroner’s view that partially remote hearings should take place wherever possible if the technology allows, it is in the interests of justice and their use is consistent with the administration of justice.
- Partially remote hearings will not be used for jury inquests, except in exceptional and limited circumstances.
- A Coroner can order a partially remote hearing; prior to this order being made, all those individuals and organisations affected should be given the opportunity to make representations.
- Even if the Coroner does not order as above, any participant in the inquest hearing (including witnesses and interested persons) can still apply to take part in the proceedings remotely.
- Courtrooms can still be used in line with social distancing guidelines, provided they can be accessed and used safely. The courtrooms should as far as possible remain accessible (to, for example, interested persons and witnesses) and they must be open during the hearing for the public and press to attend even if the hearing is partially remote. There may, of course, be restrictions on how many people can safely attend the court.
- Coroners cannot use live video, live stream or any other form of visual broadcasting device to allow access for members of the public and the press from outside of the court building. They could, however, allow access by streaming the inquest hearing to a second courtroom; this would alleviate the issues associated with social distancing but may be difficult to accommodate in some Coroner’s courts due to their size. Members of the public and the press can be given access to an audio link of the hearing (as opposed to a video live stream) but this will require the Coroner to expressly disapply s8 of the Contempt of Court Act 1981.
If your organisation is an Interested Person in and/or one of your employees is a witness at an upcoming inquest, consideration should be had as to the benefits and implications of the inquest being partially remote. If the hearing is partially remote or you choose to participate remotely at the hearing, you must ensure that you have resolved any potential practical difficulties that could arise. For example, it is important that you have a quiet room available with sufficient internet connection.
The Guidance Note is very clear that the fact that a hearing is partially remote will not affect the Coroner’s determination of any issues that arise or any conclusion they may come to. Partially remote hearings will, however, require Coroners, Interested Persons, witnesses and all other participants to adapt to ensure the inquest process is just and fair.
For more information
Our regulatory team has extensive experience in supporting clients through investigations, inquests and public inquiries. If you have any questions about this briefing or an upcoming inquest, please do not hesitate to contact our Regulatory team.
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