Written evidence from Victim Support
- Victim Support is an independent charity dedicated to supporting people affected by crime and traumatic incidents in England and Wales. We provide specialist services to help people cope and recover and to empower them.
- Victim Support provides the National Homicide Service in England and Wales. Funded by the Ministry of Justice, last year this service supported 1,482 people bereaved by homicide. Our specialist caseworkers provide independent practical and emotional support, including help with navigating the criminal justice system, assisting with the funeral, and accessing financial assistance. The National Homicide Service provides advocacy for housing, employment, welfare, finance and school issues and facilitates peer-to-peer support. Support is available for as long as needed.
- Our evidence to this inquiry draws on our National Homicide Service’s experience and is based on research carried out in July and August 2020 with staff and caseworkers from the service.
The extent of unevenness of Coroners services, including local failures, and the case for a National Coroners Service
- In our experience, coroners services can be patchy with bereaved families subjected to a postcode lottery, with different areas providing different levels of services. This can create uncertainty for families and those working with them, and make it difficult for professionals to provide support and advice around the process.
- A lack of consistency results in different experiences for bereaved families across the country. For example, following a homicide some coroners provide interim death certificates while others issue a full death certificate straight away, which can be confusing for professionals and families. There are also varying levels of support provided to family members by coroners courts due to different structures and roles in place across the court estate.
- In our survey with Homicide Service staff 90% told us that they believed that one National Coroners Service would work better than the current system of 88 different areas operating across England and Wales.
- One Homicide Service caseworker said that a national service would be beneficial because: “if service was standardised, professionals could be more confident in the processes and what to expect and, in turn, families’ expectations could be managed more easily.”
- We believe that a National Coroners Service would help to provide consistent standards and services for bereaved family members, and allow coroners to be better held to account. We would strongly support moves away from the current 88 area structure to one, national service.
Progress with training and guidance for Coroners
- We welcome the updated ‘Guide to Coroner Services for Bereaved People’ published this year, but we feel it must go further. The Code of Practice for Victims of Crime (the Victims’ Code) is the statutory code that sets out the minimum level of service that victims should receive from the criminal justice system. Family members bereaved by homicide are entitled to services under the Code, however the coroners process is not currently covered by the Code and remains a gap.
The government is currently consulting on revisions to the Victims’ Code, and we believe that obligations related to the coroner service should also be transposed into the new Code. In particular, we believe that bereaved family members should have the following rights during the coroner process:
- The coroner’s office should inform victims that they are entitled to clinical representation at a post-mortem, such as a doctor or GP.
- Victims are often not offered this option and some find out after the fact, resulting in exacerbated trauma for the victims as well as potential loss of trust in the investigative and coroner process. It is important that victims are offered this option, as it will aid them in understanding the post-mortem report and process.
- Victims should have the right to request to view and touch the body, and have the consequences of doing so clearly explained to them. Where victims are not allowed to touch or view the body, the reason for these decisions made must be clearly explained to victims.
- We understand that for evidential reasons it is often not possible for victims to touch or view the body. However, they should be able to request this and if it is not possible to facilitate, they should have it explained to them in clear terms why. In addition, it should be clearly explained to victims what they may be witnessing if they are to view the body, so that they can make an informed decision as to whether they want to view it or not.
- Victims should be entitled to have access to a copy of the post-mortem report and have this explained to them in clear and accessible language.
- It is vital that families are given this option, however it is currently not consistently offered and we have had experience of coroners refusing to provide the post-mortem to victims without communicating the reason why. For many victims the post-mortem can aid in their recovery as it provides a ‘piece of the jigsaw’ that helps explain what happened to their loved one and it is vital that they have access to a copy of the post-mortem if they choose. While we understand that the post-mortem is often used in evidence at trial, the fact that the defendant has access to it while the victims may not can exacerbate trauma, and through our experience we see no reason why the victim should not also be provided with a copy.
- There must also be an obligation on the coroners service to take all possible and reasonable steps to take into account the views, preferences and cultural/religious requirements of the family. Where it is not possible to meet these needs and requirements, the reasons why should be clearly communicated to victims.
- The needs of the family will often conflict with the needs of the homicide investigation; such as when the family wants to bury their loved one within 24 hours and this will not be possible due to the investigation. However, victims should have a right to request that their needs in relation to the handling of the body be taken into account, and the coroner must facilitate these needs where possible. Where this is not possible, it must be explained to victims in clear, accessible and sensitive language why this is the case.
Improvements in services for the bereaved
- In additional to the points raised above, we have some concerns related to the quality of communications with bereaved family members.
- Many of our Homicide Service caseworkers reported that communications with bereaved families are too often lacking, with over half (56%) saying that they were unsatisfied with the level of communication provided. In many cases caseworkers believe that the bereaved are left in the dark about the process, with communication infrequent and sometimes in a language that it inaccessible to the layperson.
- As one caseworker stated: “Much more communication [is needed] between families and the Coroners service. My families appreciate that sometimes these hearings do take a long time to organise but communicate this to the family and give them an indication of the date they are looking at. Even if it is something as vague as the hearing won’t take place in the next 6 months.”
- It is clear that communications with the bereaved need improving in many cases, and we believe that guidance for coroners should include clear timeframes and trigger points for communications with victims. For example, the Victims’ Code sets out clearly when communications with victims should take place by criminal justice agencies during the criminal justice process; victims are entitled to be told within five working days of a suspect being arrested, interviewed, released or bailed. Similar timeframes should be set out for communications with the bereaved; this should include updates after a certain number of days, updates in relation to the court and inquest process, and communications should always explain the reason for any decisions and/or delays.
- Communications with the bereaved can also be improved by coroners providing a single point of contact for each case, so that families always know who they can contact for information and updates. Finally, it is also essential that all communications with the bereaved are undertaken in a sensitive manner, and using language that they can understand.