New guidelines for legal professionals practising within the Coroners’ Courts have been published by the Bar Standards Board, the Solicitors Regulation Authority and CILEx Regulation. The new guidelines were introduced in response to concerns, particularly about the adversarial approach adopted by some lawyers. The key takeaways are summarised below.
Keep your knowledge and understanding of the jurisdiction and procedure of the Coroner’s Court up to date, including case law, legislation and the Chief Coroner’s Guidance. This also includes ensuring:
- Your client knows what to expect from the hearing.
- Disclosure is complete and timely.
- It is remembered that Reports to Prevent Future Deaths are not a sanction.
Conflicts of interest: When acting for interested parties it is important to consider if there might be a conflict of interest. For example, when acting for a prison service or a large hospital trust, it may be the case that one (or more) of the witnesses on behalf of an organization requires their own separate representation if their interest(s) diverge from those of the organization as a whole. It is important to identify potential conflicts early to avoid delays.see video below
Dealing with Vulnerability
- Ask questions clearly and appropriately in Court and conference, it is often a good idea to check that the question was clear to the witness. If not, re-phrase the question and ensure to always use simple language with vulnerable witnesses.
- Make it clear to the witness that if they have not understood the question, it is probably your fault, not theirs.
- Remember that healthcare and other professionals and individuals as well as the family may also be vulnerable as a result of having witnessed the trauma of someone’s death.
- If the family want a picture of their loved one, try and help facilitate this.
- Be patient and prepared to answer the same question multiple times if necessary.
Communication & Engagement
- Avoid duplication of areas covered by the coroner in both questioning and submissions.
- Introduce yourself to the family and offer your condolences, it is not an admission of guilt.
- Be respectful in and outside of Court, for example, let the family sit at the front, do not inappropriately talk within earshot of the family.
- Make sure the family have space outside of the court and know that they can leave at any point.
- Have spare copies of documents available so that the family and other parties can follow the proceedings.
- Submit any written submissions in good time so the family and other interested parties have the opportunity to understand them.
- In complex cases it may be a good idea to create a core bundle that is less overwhelming and easier for parties to navigate.
Working with other organizations
- Families and other witnesses will often need emotional and practical support. This can be provided by a number of organizations and as lawyers it is important (and our duty) to sign-post individuals to those who can best help them. Examples of such organizations include: The Coroners’ Courts Support Service, an independent voluntary organization, which provides practical and emotional support to bereaved families and other interested persons and witnesses who take part in inquests.
- Inquest, which provides expert support on state related deaths.
- Other organizations that provide support include: Action against Medical Accidents; Child Bereavement Charity; CRUSE Bereavement Care; Samaritans; Survivors of Bereavement by Suicide (SOBS); The Compassionate Friends; The Good Grief Trust; The Hub of Hope and Winston’s Wish.
It is highly recommended that all lawyers involved in Coronial proceedings carefully read the new guidance, which is clear and comprehensive, see below. These links will also take you to further helpful videos.