Thursday 14 October 2010

ConDem Cuts Betray Bereaved Custody Death Families

In amongst the detail released today about the quangos and public bodies that face abolition by the ConDem government is a reversal of plans to overhaul the failing and fragmented coroners inquest system.

The system is in a complete mess, with largely unaccountable coroners who have no formal training and whose decisions are dependent on their individual approach to hearings, rather than on agreed national standards. Inquests are particularly ill-equipped to deal with deaths that raise questions of state or corporate accountability, such as deaths in police custody or in prison - lessons are rarely shared and the legal rights for bereaved families during proceedings are so severely restricted that there are overwhelming concerns about the ability of the inquest process to offer a effective investigation in accordance with the Human Rights Act. More often than not, it has been the families of those who have died - people with the least power, the worst access to information and the fewest resources - who have been the driving force in the search for truth after a death in the dubious care of the state.

An important step forward would be a professional, properly funded national Coroner Service, which was promised in last year's Coroners and Justice Act that received overwhelming cross-party support in both Houses of Parliament. Lobbying by organisations like INQUEST has been pushing for fundamental reforms since at least 2004. Now the Coalition government has announced that the post of Chief Coroner for England and Wales is to be abolished before it has even been established. In a press release today [PDF], Deborah Coles of INQUEST, said:

Bereaved families have been betrayed as - once again - their needs and views have been ignored.

This announcement shows a failure of vision and courage by the Coalition government. The dysfunctional and flawed inquest system is in need of complete reform. It is dishonest to suggest these proposals to tweak rules and regulations will deliver the fundamental change that is needed urgently. The new model set out by Parliament in the Coroners and Justice Act 2009 is rendered completely hollow without the driving force and national leadership of a Chief Coroner.

During a consultation and parliamentary process which lasted over six years, bereaved families shared their painful experiences of the inquest system with policymakers. They did so with the expectation that the system would be reformed and other families would not have to undergo the unnecessarily distressing process they were forced to endure.

Not only does this decision fail bereaved families but also society, which should have an inquest system fit for purpose in the 21st Century. The inquest is usually the only public forum in which contentious deaths such as accidents, deaths at work, deaths in custody or deaths of military personnel are subjected to public scrutiny. The current system is failing to perform its preventative function. Today’s announcement by the Coalition government will frustrate the opportunity to create a system which saves lives.

Deborah's final point is a really important one - for the sake of a minor cost saving, the government is prepared to continue with a crumbling system that does little to stop more people dying due to the lack of accountability of state and corporate interests. Scrapping the Chief Coroner and the reforms associated with the post will probably attract little media interest compared to the more high profile cuts. But that doesn't make it any less of a disgrace.

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