Written evidence from I M ARROW, Senior Coroner Plymouth Torbay South Devon

The Politics of Resourcing the Coroners Service

It is not surprising that there is a reluctance in society to discuss the resourcing of death investigation, that is, not until such time as an individual family or group is seriously impacted by an unnatural or unusual death.

Death investigation is not politically attractive to raise as an electoral issue until things go wrong. This subject matter should be discussed at Cabinet level. Resourcing the Coroners’ Service should be a Cabinet led decision.

This select committee should establish which Senior Minister has overall responsibility for the resourcing of the Coroners service. That Minister should be asked to give evidence in person to the select committee. In the event the Senior Minister with that responsibility cannot be identified the responsibility should be considered a Cabinet responsibility.

Fundamental to the proper functioning of a coroner service is the provision of adequate resources. This requires both political and executive will. The political and executive bodies need to be held to account on their provision of resources.

The present legislation provides that local politicians and local executive are responsible for resourcing the coroners' service. This causes a disparate quality of service to arrive, some provision is exemplary, in other parts of the country services are denuded to such an extent the service is minimal.

It is imperative the service is lifted to the best quality and not reduced by cuts to the lowest possible service provision, for to do so is unfair to the general public who may experience the differing quality in different areas.

There is a tension that arises between the delivery of a local service and the possible desire for a National (uniform, consistent) service.

Geographical areas have different demands, to cite the trite, Inner-city Manchester is unlike the Isles of Scilly [ although they have had the same Coroner at different times]

Each local authority should seek to provide a court, office and support service consistent with its residents' expectations and the needs of the bereaved.

My concern is that passing responsibility for the organization of the Coroner service to a national body is likely to reduce what have been good locally provided services in currently well-resourced relevant areas. There will be a reduction to the lowest possible service provision.

The provision of Magistrates' courts is a clear comparative. Local authorities were required to provide Magistrates Court and by and large provided one Court in every market town. Local authorities were stripped of these assets by central government they were passed to the court service. The public no longer has a local service as many courts have been closed. (Clear examples in my area are  Torbay and Totnes )There is an increased travel requirement by all court users. This is increasingly the experience of those using the Coroners’ Court Service.

This review should carefully consider the manner of funding the service receives, it should particularly scrutinize the response of the Department for Local Government to this call for evidence and consider calling the minister of that Department for an explanation of the funding provided to local authorities by central government to maintain a local coroner service. The Department should be asked for an explanation of the funding formula applied.

The review should carefully consider how the Coroner service is resourced when a Coroners jurisdiction covers more than one local authority area, for there is a lacuna in the law. The 1988 coroners act at section 27 provided a mechanism for the taking of funding disputes to the relevant minister for resolution. There is currently no such provision in the 2009 Coroners Act. In certain circumstances where a coroners area covers more than one local authority area there seems to be some discrepancy as to the funding. If the local authorities are of different political and executive hues there will often be an impasse in the appropriate funding and resourcing of the service.

In my view the Coroner services strength is its local operation and a local knowledge of issues and concerns by both Coroners and Coroners Officers. The service weakness is the varied and sometimes inadequate funding /resourcing. Having a national service would not immediately improve local service delivery

In my view this review should look closely at the funding formula which provides resources to each area. It would be reasonable to transparently set out that funding formula and funding budget for public view. It would of course be for the Department for Local Government to do this rather than the Ministry of Justice (note the tension that arises as the Ministry of Justice has control of the Coroners Service policy)

I would commend to this review the consideration of the funding and resourcing of a Coroner service based on a regional arrangement with one large local authority within a region entering a standardized management resourcing agreement [which should be approved by the minister] which would enable all other local authorities and relevant police forces to provide a reasonable regional service that is a standard service across a region. Similar to the other local authority joint funding of arrangements, for instance auditing functions. There would be regionalised efficiencies of budgeting, procurement, planning and development. I would commend a per capita funding budget with allowance for seasonal/ local variation/demands.

In such a scenario it would be advantageous to enable all Coroners within a region to work across that region making appropriate decisions. (Compare the current arrangement in Wales) This would provide resilience. It would be advantageous for central government to take on responsibility for Coroners remuneration and pensions. This could be achieved by realigning part of the Department for Local government budget for Coroners to the HMCTS. (Compare the arrangement for Property Tribunal Judges now remunerated through the Court Service in a Regional structure). Local Authorities are likely to approve of being relieved of this financial burden. (This change would not disproportionately affect their local budget) Appointments as Coroner could then be made on a regional basis by the JAC.

I would expect this National Review to establish what funds are spent on the Coroners Service nationally and how they are allocated to each coroner area. This will give a broad indication of the per capita commitment each individual death merits. I anticipate the marked differences will be quite shocking. I predict the public will no doubt wish to hear an explanation for the disparity of the resourcing and funding

The target should be a local service with national minimum standards there should be a nationally agreed formula for a funding agreement for the service regionally.

Parliament would do well to consider who benefits from the information obtained by postmortem examination.

Are postmortems particularly required for administrative/judicial evidential purposes or for informing future medical treatment and strategy?

Should in fairness the resource burden of conducting these medical examinations and tests fall on Local government or the Health service. (The cost of Postmortems at local hospitals yielding a natural causes result could be factored into the Medical Examiners budget... it may be a natural death we need to check)

Should Local government be able to recharge Health Service providers for the medical investigation service/information provided through the Coroners authorised examinations from which the Health Services derive knowledge, information and benefit? (The current arrangement of funding for Next of Kin Hospital consented Postmortems is borne by the local Health provider as opposed to Coroner ordered postmortem examinations which are funded by Local Authorities)

The Coroners Service funding overall should be audited annually and a report made to the Lord Chancellor so the Lord Chancellor has an annual overview of the resourcing of this important public service and can make representations to Ministers and the Cabinet and be better informed to deal with questions in Parliament and eventually to this committee.

 

August 2020