Written evidence from the City of London Corporation
Submitted by the Office of the City Remembrancer
The City of London Corporation and its coroner service
- The City of London Corporation provides local government services for residents and City workers and is the funding authority for the City of London’s coroner service. The City is distinct from London boroughs with a unique population profile of fewer than 10,000 residents but a much greater daytime population. Before the effects of the covid-19 pandemic, the daytime population was over 500,000. In addition, 10 million tourists visited the City annually although this figure and the daytime population are currently much reduced because of the pandemic.
- The City’s coroner service is led by HM Senior Coroner for the City of London who, though on duty every day of the year (as required by law), is classed and paid as a part-time senior coroner because of the number of deaths referred annually. The service operates with a small staff from rooms within the Central Criminal Court in Old Bailey; it has offices for the Coroner and the coroner’s officers, and a dedicated court room. These facilities are sufficient for almost all the service’s work and court hearings and, when necessary, they are supplemented by the provision of a larger hearing room and additional support staff.
- The profile of the deaths reported to the City of London coroner service is probably atypical; there are relatively few community deaths and it is noteworthy that a significant proportion of referrals comes each year from the specialist Heart Centre at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital. There tends to be a relatively high incidence of deaths from suicide, not infrequently involving iconic landmarks or the River Thames, and there is also a recognised ongoing risk from terrorist attack or similar, as occurred most recently at Fishmongers’ Hall in November 2019.
Local / National Coroner Service
- The Corporation supports the continuation of coroner services being delivered locally, rather than as part of a national service. A key strength of a local service is its ability to recognise and meet specific local needs through the development of local working practices and collaborative relationships with other local services.
- A dedicated police force for the City of London is a direct benefit for the City Coroner Service and allows for a level of support and closeness of working that might not be possible in other areas. There are a number of other advantages of a local service that are worth highlighting. For example, close collaboration with local faith groups and leaders has assisted in understanding of specific requirements in relation to faith deaths and helped avoid any unnecessary delay. In addition, a protocol is currently being developed with Barts Heart Centre which, it is intended, will assist the hospital’s investigation and understanding of deaths from certain genetic cardiac conditions, to the direct benefit of the bereaved families concerned and the public as a whole. It does seem that arrangements such as these would be much more difficult to achieve, and certainly less effective, if the City were part of a national (or even a pan-London) coroner service.
- Considerable benefits flow from the fact that a local service can operate through a relatively small team of staff. The City of London coroner service is run most of the time by a small core team. Resilience is in place in the form of Assistant Coroners (who work as and when needed) and an officer and staff member from the City of London Police who are trained as coroner’s officers to provide cover and additional support. The advantage of the small core team is that they can operate highly collaboratively ensuring continuity and flexibility, and allows for a personalised service for bereaved families. It also results in all staff members maximising their skills and experience, which is of great use in a crisis, and enjoying a high level of morale.
- The creation of a National Service risks undermining the ability to meet specifically local needs. Standard setting and monitoring is within the remit of the Chief Coroner and both Chief Coroners have made considerable progress in this regard. The Corporation considers that the public, including bereaved families, would be best served by this work continuing in the framework of local services.
Ability to deal with Multiple Deaths
- The City of London coroner service is able to manage properly and effectively multiple deaths. There is extensive local, pan-London and national training and planning in place for multiple death scenarios, involving the Senior Coroner, coroner’s officers, neighbouring coroner services, the City of London Police, the Metropolitan Police Service, and numerous other City of London and pan-London support services.
- The City of London’s most recent experience of an event involving multiple deaths was the incident at Fishmongers’ Hall in November 2019. This incident illustrates that the training and planning referred to above resulted in the speedy and effective management of the matter so far as the coroner service was concerned. The City of London Senior Coroner collaborated with the Westminster Coroner (as Disaster Victim Identification lead for London), with the support of the Metropolitan Police Service and City of London Police. As a result the post mortem examinations were conducted, the bodies were released, and the inquests were opened, all within a week of the deaths.
- The City of London is also able to manage lengthy and complex inquests, when the need arises. As indicated above, when required the Corporation provides such additional resources, accommodation and staff as may be identified by the coroner in relation to a particular inquest.
- Incidents involving mass casualties can, however, give rise to other complications. When deaths occur in circumstances involving national security (including terrorism) or other national emergency or disaster, it is usual for the resulting inquests to be taken out of the control of the local coroner service, and to be conducted instead by a Judge, supported by a team of counsel and solicitors. The inquests into the deaths at Fishmongers’ Hall in November 2019 fall into this category, with the conduct of those inquests being transferred to HHJ Mark Lucraft QC immediately after they were opened. Given that it was recognised that the investigations would involve consideration of material which may be viewed only by a Judge, and not by a coroner, the decision appears to the Corporation to have been entirely necessary.
- The concern arising is in relation to the funding of inquests in these circumstances which inevitably cause exceptional expense for the local area in which they fall, and which is considerably in excess of what would be expected in even a lengthy and complex inquest conducted by the coroner. The Corporation understands that whilst the Government does not rule out the possibility of financial contribution to the costs of such investigations and inquests, there is no automatic recognition that these are exceptional cases and there is no coherent system or set criteria for decision-making in this regard.
- The Corporation considers that this categoryof inquest ought to be recognised by Government and that there ought to be in place a system for consideration of central funding for inquests relating to matters of national security or other major national emergencies which are no longer in the conduct of the local coroner. The costs involved in such inquests can reasonably be seen as going well beyond what any local funding authority should be expected to bear or to prepare for, even on a contingency basis. Further, this issue must now be considered in the context of the very real additional financial burdens placed on local government as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
- In this regard, the Corporation notes the recent report by JUSTICE, the all-party law reform and human rights organisation, following the findings of the working group chaired by Sir Robert Owen (report released on 21st August 2020). Among the report’s 54 recommendations are proposals for a Central Inquiries Unit within Government and a category of “special procedure inquests”, proposals which would appear to support the provision of greater resources centrally in certain circumstances.
Response to COVID 19
- The Corporation and the City of London Senior Coroner have worked collaboratively with their counterparts to ensure a uniform and effective response to COVID-19. Throughout the height of the crisis, the Senior Coroner was in regular contact with the other London and South East England coroners and across London there was an appropriate sharing of information, facilities and resources.
- Despite the effects of lockdown, in the City of London there has been no delay in dealing with death referrals and body release, not least because the coroner service software programme can be operated remotely. There has been inevitable and unavoidable delay in court hearings (inquests) taking place, although these have now resumed with, currently, partially remote hearings being conducted by the Senior Coroner from the court room in the Central Criminal Court, in accordance with the Chief Coroner’s Guidance.
Improvements in Services for the Bereaved
- As the City of London coroner team is small, it has a standing arrangement with the Coroners’ Courts Support Service to have one of its volunteers in attendance at most of its inquests, for the support and assistance of the bereaved families. The CCSS receives no core funding from Government (unlike the Witness Service in the criminal courts and “Support Through Court” in the RCJ), and the Corporation therefore voluntarily makes an annual donation, in recognition of the support provided by the CCSS to the City. Given the CCSS’s excellent work in support of the bereaved, the vast majority of whom are unrepresented at inquests, it may be that a case can and should be made for it to receive some Government funding.
 “When Things Go Wrong: The response of the justice system”, A report by JUSTICE https://justice.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/flipbook/34/book.html