On 28 April 2020 the Chief Coroner issued further guidance to Coroners in respect of the management of deaths during the Coronavirus pandemic.
The guidance reminds that the vast majority of deaths which are known to have resulted from COVID-19 will be deemed to be natural causes and a referral to the Coroner will therefore not be required. However, such deaths will still need to be notified to Public Health England and may also be notifiable to the HSE under RIDDOR.
However, the situation may differ depending on whether the deceased individual was in receipt of care services or was a care worker or medic. This is because, where a medical practitioner completing a medical cause of death form suspects that the death was due to an injury or disease attributable to their employment (i.e. if they have caught COVID-19 at work) then the Coroner must be notified. This means that in circumstances where frontline NHS staff, care home workers, emergency service personnel or others (e.g. public transport employees) may have contracted the virus at their workplace, the death will need to be referred to the Coroner.
The Coroner will then need to decide whether or not to undertake an investigation and, in making that decision, the Coroner will need to consider whether there is any reason to suspect that any culpable human failure contributed to this particular death. Where there is no reason to suspect that a failure contributed to this particular death there will usually be no requirement for an investigation to take place.
The Chief Coroner has highlighted that inquests will not be the right forum for examining high level decisions about, for example, the supply and provision of PPE to frontline workers. The guidance states “an inquest is not the right forum for addressing concerns about high level government policy or public policy”. However, where a death is suspected to be connected with an individual’s employment where an individual has worked in a frontline role such as those listed above, and there is reason to suspect that this particular person was exposed to the virus at work due to the absence of PPE or other protective measures, the duty to investigate may be triggered.
Similarly, a coronial investigation may be required where there is reason to believe a death due to COVID-19 resulted from:
- some human failure which contributed to the person being infected with the virus;
- some form of clinical care of the person in their final illness which contributed to the death; or
- the person died in state detention.
Coroners will have to carefully consider the facts and circumstances of each individual death when making a decision how to proceed. If the Coroner does decided to proceed with an inquest, the Coronavirus Act 2020 has removed the requirement to be held with a jury if the Coroner has reason to suspect the death was caused by COVID-19. In any event, it is likely that many inquests will be suspended in the short term to enable enquiries to take place and evidence to be gathered and Coroner’s do, of course, have to have regard to the ability of health and social care providers to provide such evidence given the current pressures caused by the pandemic.
Only time will tell what happens in due course but it is envisaged there will be a large number of inquests on the horizon, comprising those inquests which were ongoing prior to the pandemic which have been essentially placed on hold due to current circumstances and the significant number of additional deaths which would have occurred during the period of lockdown.
We regularly represent care providers in respect of inquest proceedings, including preparation of witness evidence, advising on investigations and avoidance of prevention of future death reports, preparing witnesses to give evidence and representation at inquest hearings. We are mindful that some Coroners Courts are currently more active than others in terms of requesting evidence. If you require any assistance in responding to any communications from the Coroner’s Office, or with any inquest process in due course, please do get in touch with Laura Guntrip or 01202 786187 to discuss how we can assist you