Last month the Chief Coroner published guidance on remote participation in coronial proceedings via video and audio broadcast.
The COVID-19 pandemic has caused the adjournment of many scheduled inquest hearings, posing significant problems, delays and administrative backlogs for Coroner’s Courts up and down the country. The pandemic has, therefore, forced Coroner’s Courts to consider how they can circumvent the problems associated with the current social distancing restrictions and introduce partially remote court hearing participation via video or audio wherever possible.
The Chief Coroner has stated that open justice, meaning public access to justice, is the fundamental principle underpinning the way in which all courts deal with any remote hearing. Unlike civil and criminal judges, it is the Chief Coroner’s view that a Coroner must be physically present in a Coroner’s Court to hold an inquest. The Chief Coroner has stated that Coroners are under an obligation to hold an inquest in public and a Coroner being physically present in a Coroner’s Court satisfies the requirement for open justice.
The guidance states that partially remote inquest hearings should not prevent Coroner’s Courts being used in line with the social distancing guidelines. The Coroner should be physically present for all hearings and the courtroom should, as far as possible, remain accessible to professional participants, interested persons, witnesses and must be open for the public and the press, even where remote court participation is taking place.
The guidance note sets out the practical implications of partially remote hearings for Coroner’s Courts including the following:
- Coroners can order partially remote hearings, but if they do so, they need to give those affected the opportunity to make representations and will need to consider those alongside an interests of justice test.
- Partially remote hearings are not generally suitable for any jury inquests.
- It is a contempt of court (criminal offence) to record, play, dispose of, publish a recording/transcript of the proceedings or attempt to record or broadcast the proceedings.
- The guidance note to Coroners is not an instruction that they must hear inquests in a partially remote way, but is guidance should they wish to do so.
We have already taken part in a number of remote pre-inquest reviews and full inquest hearings, with mixed success on the technology front. However, it is evident that Coroners are embracing this change and some courts have invested in better systems to enable remote hearings to take place more effectively.
In enabling family members, other interested persons and witnesses to join inquest hearings remotely, the practical aspects of attending a hearing have been simplified. This may be a welcome development, particularly to healthcare and legal professionals who are often required to travel some distance to attend hearings. The workings of partially remote court hearings may also have positive implications for the speed in which inquests are held after the death of a person, although it is likely to take some considerable time for Coroners to catch up on their backlog of cases and deal with the increase in cases caused by COVID-19.
It remains to be seen at this early stage whether the new era of partially remote inquest hearings will be taken up as a more usual way of conducting inquest hearings for the long term future, where they are appropriate
If you require any further advice in respect of an inquest process or if you have been notified of a virtual inquest hearing, we can assist you. Please do not hesitate to contact us on 01202 786179 or email firstname.lastname@example.org and our specialist healthcare solicitors will be happy to support you.