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Bridget Prentice: The hon. Member for North-West Norfolk probably knows what I am likely to say about amendments 94 to 97. He knows that I do not think that every death in custody or state detention necessarily needs an inquest with a jury. The most obvious example would be if someone died of natural causes in a prison hospital. Why should there automatically be an inquest then when there would not be one for someone in similar circumstances in a general hospital?
David Howarth (Cambridge) (LD): I presume the answer to that is to ensure that the person did die of natural causes in a prison hospital.
Bridget Prentice: I think the post-mortem would probably establish that. It is not necessary to have a jury to sit waiting for that to be discovered.
David Howarth: Who is to be the finder of fact if there is a dispute? Is it to be the coroner or members of the public? If a death occurs in custody in any way, the finder of fact should be ordinary people.
Bridget Prentice: I am afraid I have to disagree with the hon. Gentleman. I would have thought that that was a pretty obvious example. If a post-mortem finds that someone died of natural causes, the coroner is more than capable of carrying out an investigation and a jury is not needed. In fact, about half of all deaths in state detention occur due to natural causes, and coroners are more than capable of dealing with them. If there were concerns about negligent care, the guidance issued by the chief coroner would almost certainly indicate that the coroner should exercise their discretion and call a jury. Equally, as the hon. Member for Cardiff, Central said, in the vast majority of cases, coroners sit without juries, as they do when dealing with cases of deaths of armed forces personnel on active service. We have rightly heard tributes to the coroners in Wiltshire and Oxfordshire for the way in which they have dealt with the bulk of the inquests into deaths on active service in Iraq or Afghanistan.
I am unclear as to whether amendment 97 proposes jury inquests for all deaths involving armed forces personnel, including training accidents or even deaths off duty. I would certainly resist the idea that a jury would be necessary in such cases, unless the situation was similar to those cited in clause 7(2). The Government are criticised if we appear to be attempting to stop coroners who sit alone in military inquests from making critical remarks about Government policy, yet the Opposition are suggesting that coroners cannot carry out such investigations on their own and that they need juries. Opposition Members might have to address that contradiction.
Insisting on a jury for all inquests into deaths at a hospital, hospice, clinic or other centre for medical provision, whether public or private—a chemist’s shop, for example—is similarly unnecessary. Again, coroners’ independence shows that they are more than capable of carrying out inquests and of making robust and, if necessary, critical findings without the assistance of a jury. I am not convinced that jury inquests should be extended on that basis.
The hon. Member for Cardiff, Central asked why clause 7(2)(b) mentioned police officers. It is a restatement of the Coroners Act 1988. We extended the provision to include the service police force because we felt that if we were dealing with police officers in one form, we ought to deal with them in their other forms. The hon. Lady was advocating extending the provision to all state officials, but it would be difficult to define a state official. Let me put a scenario to her. If a tax inspector was driving between two inspections and was involved in a car accident in which someone died, it could be argued that he was acting in his capacity as a state official. However, if the accident happened after he had finished work and was driving home, would she suggest that that, too, would automatically require a jury? My problem with amendment 71 is that it lacks precision.
Jenny Willott: The provision, as amended by amendment 71, would still be subject to the official acting
“in the purported execution of the officer’s or member’s duty as such”.
Therefore, they would be no more liable if they were driving between appointments than a police officer would be when driving without blue lights flashing. Either a rule applies or it does not. I would not have thought that a tax inspector driving between appointments could be legally considered as executing his duty, so he would not be covered.
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Bridget Prentice: I do not accept the argument made by the hon. Lady. If we extended jury inquests to all such cases, does she not feel that it would be too wide an extension in terms of who might be defined as a state official in those circumstances? It seems nonsensical to extend jury inquests.
David Howarth: The other, obvious answer to that is that someone who counts as acting on behalf of state authority for the purposes of article 2 would count as a state official here—that is certainly the clearest way of doing it. If the Minister thinks that the amendment is too vague, I ask her about this specific case: is she against adding the security services to the list?
Bridget Prentice: That would be a far better argument than that for the general extension to state officials. The hon. Gentleman mentions article 2, but it is not referred to in his amendment. My objection to amendment 71 is its lack of precision; if he came back with a different amendment, perhaps we would have a different debate.
I conclude by reminding the Committee that in clause 7(3), there is already the provision for an inquest to be held with a jury if the coroner thinks that there is sufficient reason for doing so. Therefore, if a death is attributable to the act or omission of a state official—as the Liberal Democrats would have it—in the purported execution of their duty, and if the coroner feels that the circumstances of the death require an inquest to be held, then it can be held. All the examples given by the hon. Members for Cambridge and for Cardiff Central can be perfectly covered by the subsection.
Finally, if an interested party believed that the circumstances of a particular case warranted an inquest to be held with a jury, but the coroner had decided not to call one, that party could appeal to the chief coroner under clause 30. Again, that will give sufficient protection in any case where people might feel that a jury inquest would be more appropriate. On that basis, I hope that the hon. Member for North West Norfolk will withdraw his amendment.
Mr. Bellingham: I am grateful to the Minister for her comments, and in particular for pointing out that in subsection (3) there is a wide power for the senior coroner to empanel a jury if he thinks there is sufficient reason for doing so. I take on board that all my concerns, and the examples that I gave, could be countered by that.
The Minister hinted that there might be a degree of hypocrisy and opportunism on the part of the official Opposition in wanting to have more juries in place for defence inquests. However, there is no contradiction at all in our policy—in fact, we have argued consistently that there should be more transparency in those inquests. We will come in a moment to our concerns about secret and certified inquests, but we have never suggested that there should be anything other than more transparency. Having a jury in place, notwithstanding the Minister’s arguments, can assist with that transparency and above all lead the families involved and the wider public to conclude that justice is being done. On that basis, and based on what the Minister has told us—I want to reflect on what she said, and I may well come back to the issue at a later stage—I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Clause 7 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 8

Assembling a jury
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
Mr. Bellingham: Clause 8 is about assembling a jury, and the current situation as I understand it—the Minister will correct me if I am wrong—is that juries must number between seven and 11. However, the clause replaces that figure with one of between six and nine. It might well be a sensible move, but I would argue that what is in place at the moment makes more sense. Six is too small a figure for a jury, and I point out to the Committee that the Bar Council is concerned about that. Furthermore, Inquest has also made the point that since the R v. Middleton case, to which I referred earlier, inquest juries have enhanced responsibilities for providing narrative verdicts. Reducing the figure will put a greater onus on that smaller number of jurors. That is not necessary. Will the Minister tell the Committee what is behind that proposal? Is it going to save any money, and if so, how much?
Mr. Boswell: Will the Minister also tell the Committee who might object in court to a particular member of the jury and in what circumstances? In other words, do the rules follow those with which we might be more or less familiar through, for example, the Crown court, or is there some special regime and a limited number of people who can engage on this?
Mr. Garnier: I assume that it is the senior coroner referred to in subsection (2) who makes the decision about the number of people who serve on the jury, but what are the factors that will influence his decision in choosing which number to summon?
Bridget Prentice: The reason why we have put in six, seven, eight or nine jurors is to give some discretion to the senior coroner—although it will be likely that the chief coroner will issue a practice direction suggesting that they should generally start with nine jurors. The idea is that if a juror fails to turn up or one becomes ill in the course of a case, it can still go on. It may be that some potential juror turns out to be disqualified when questioned by the coroner. That might partly be the answer to the hon. and learned Gentleman’s question.
Mr. Garnier: That might relate to the question of how big the jury panel should be, from which the finite number is selected, but I do not think that it answers the point that I put to the Minister.
Bridget Prentice: The hon. and learned Gentleman is right: it was a point about what size the panel will be. Those who can be jurors in an inquest are those who are qualified under the Juries Act 1974. The coroner will be able to question the persons summoned to ensure that they are properly qualified, resident and can be sworn properly to sit on the jury.
Mr. Garnier: It is probably entirely my fault for being obtuse, but if a jury member becomes unfit for some reason and cannot carry on and the coroner wants to carry on with a reduced number of the jury, what has that got to do with clause 8?
Bridget Prentice: Clause 8 is about assembling the jury and it will therefore be for the coroner to decide how many people need to be available.
Mr. Garnier: There is some confusion between the jury that sits on an inquest—under clause 8(1), it could be six, seven, eight or nine persons—and the wider pool of people who form the jury panel, from which the six, seven, eight or nine are drawn, so a jury of 20 could be reduced by ballot to six, seven, eight or nine. If an inquest has started, however, and there is a jury of six, seven, eight or nine, we either have to return to the Juries Act or we need to have some other guidance or statutory rule stating that, when a jury is reduced by illness from six to five, the coroner has a power to continue. That was the point that the Minister addressed and it has nothing to do with clause 8.
Bridget Prentice: I am sorry but I am totally lost as to what the hon. and learned Gentleman is saying. Clause 8 is about assembling a jury, so the coroner can call on a jury of six, seven, eight or nine persons, and will presumably call a slightly larger number to ensure that those who sit are properly qualified to be jury members. I am not sure what the hon. and learned Gentleman means beyond that.
Mr. Boswell: I wonder whether I can assist as a member of the laity. As I construe the clause it is about assembling a jury, which is actually the act of beginning an inquest. The coroner will quite reasonably want a hand of cards, and will then interview and swear in the requisite number that he thinks appropriate. My hon. and learned Friend is making a substantial point, which may well be addressed in other legislation, about the vires of a jury continuing when one or other of its members, having been assembled and sworn in, drops out. My tribunal experience was, of course, different because it involved adjudicating and there was no jury, but I nearly cost people a great deal of money by becoming ineligible in the middle of the process.
Bridget Prentice: I was watching the hon. and learned Member for Harborough to see whether he nodded at the hon. Gentleman’s explanation, because I failed to grasp the issue earlier. I will come back to him and the Committee on it, but he may well have a point that needs to be addressed.
Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East) (Lab): Is my hon. Friend aware that in some jurisdictions, the Crown and coroners’ courts share jurors so as not to call far too many people? Will she confirm that the clause’s wording does not rule out making surplus jurors from a coroner’s court available for an adjacent Crown court?
Bridget Prentice: That is absolutely correct and it is a sensible use of jurors and their time, but I do not think that it answers the question asked by the hon. and learned Member for Harborough, so I will have to come back to him on the matter.
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