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Impact of Covid-19 on Inquests and Inquiries

Coronavirus has sadly taken the lives of thousands of people across the UK as it has spread rapidly across communities, but also within hospitals, care settings, prisons and detention centres.

It has led to much debate around the protection of the public, and in particular health workers, as deaths have continued to rise amongst people of all ages, many of whom did not have underlying illnesses and had not been previously unwell.

Terry Wilcox, a specialist in supporting families through inquests, looks at guidance issued by the Chief Coroner for England and Wales with regards to the impact the virus has had on the coronial process, and what it may mean for families awaiting hearings.

He also considers some key questions over whether deaths from Covid-19 could be subject to inquest investigations in the months to come.

Frequently Asked Questions

Will all scheduled inquests still progress?
Yes, Coroners have a duty to ensure all required inquests are staged and completed. The UK’s Chief Coroner has however said it is ‘inevitable that adjournments will cause the number of cases over 12 months old to increase.’ It is expected that there could be a focus on completing Rule 23 inquests – where witnesses do not need to be called as everyone agrees on the facts and the written reports answer all the Coroner's and relatives' questions. These could be the majority be held over the coming weeks and months, particularly as they can be done remotely. However, more detailed inquest hearings, where attendance and questioning of numerous key witnesses are required, as well as the attendance of juries, are set to be significantly delayed.
How will Covid-19 deaths be classed and recorded?
Covid-19 has been classed as a naturally occurring disease and therefore in most cases it will be recorded as the sole natural cause of death. This will be recorded by doctors on the Medical Certificate of Cause of Death (MCCD).
Will a Covid-19 death trigger an inquest?
No. This is because it is classed as a notifiable disease under the Health Protection (Notification) Regulations. Covid-19 can therefore be recorded as a natural cause of death and therefore, in most cases, the death will not need referring to a coroner.
When may a Covid-19 death warrant an inquest?
Guidance issued by the Chief Coroner does state that there may be additional factors which mean a death may be reported to the coroner, such as where the cause is not clear, or where there are other relevant factors. Inquests will be required where the death occurred in ‘state detention’, such as a prison or psychiatric hospital. The Chief Coroner has stated that it is ‘important that sufficiency of inquiry should be maintained as much as possible in prison deaths’ and that ‘it is obviously important that deaths in custody or otherwise in state detention are scrutinised carefully.’ He says ‘there may be deaths which occur which are not by natural cause and these should be given as much attention and resource as is available by investigators in the circumstances.’ Coroners are being advised to open an investigation into such deaths, but possibly delay opening the inquest itself until a later date. This will provide time to assemble all relevant evidence, release the body for burial or cremation and then list the inquest at a future date, most likely after the pandemic emergency has passed.
Are we likely to see less inquests held?
Temporarily yes, but long term, no. Jury inquests which had been due to start between 31 March and Friday 28 August 2020, of any significant length, will not take place before September. Long or complex inquests not involving a jury are also likely to be adjourned. There will undoubtedly be a significant reduction in hearings until the pandemic passes, but the Chief Coroner has stressed that all Coroners remain under their usual statutory duties and must conduct proper investigations, which may require adjournments. Coroners have discretion and judgments to exercise in various respects and ‘can be expected to exercise them in a pragmatic way which takes account of the effects of the pandemic’.
What other reason may an inquest be held?
In some cases deaths may need to be reported to the coroner when ‘pandemic pressures’ mean there may be insufficient capacity within the health service to diagnose Coivd-19 as an illness in life, or for a doctor to sign a Medical Certificate of Cause of Death. It may be the case that post-mortem examinations are not be possible either, due to infection risk of capacity problems. In these circumstances an inquest may be held to gather all evidence, including accurate information from the scene in a community death.

Comment from Terry Wilcox

Inquests and investigations have obviously been seriously disrupted by the Coronavirus outbreak across the country.

For anybody who has been awaiting an inquest, or who loses a loved one in the coming months, a longer and more difficult wait is anticipated before they get a chance to ask questions and get the answers they need.

As solicitors who are experienced in representing families in these situations we know our role in supporting people is now perhaps more crucial than ever.

“It cannot be the case that the causes of avoidable deaths are not fully questioned, or that this pandemic results in any less thorough investigations over any loss of life that could have been prevented.

We feel that in many scenarios it is quite the opposite, and that as more information emerges, more serious questions will need to be asked about protection provided from this killer disease.

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