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I remind the House, as the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, forecast that I would, that the Bill already contains clear provision at Clause 7(3) to give coroners discretion to summon a jury if they feel there is sufficient reason for doing so, even if the death concerned does not strictly fall into the categories mentioned in Clause 7(2). This is a discretionary power that we expect coroners to make use of in a variety of situations and scenarios as and when they see fit. In addition, we foresee the Chief Coroner issuing guidance as to when it would be expected that coroners may wish to exercise this discretionary power to call a jury, even if the coroner is not legally obliged to do so. There is also the safeguard of the provision in Clause 35(2)(g), where an interested person may appeal to the Chief Coroner if they feel that the coroner should have exercised his or her discretion differently. We therefore think that we have in place under the new regime a structure to ensure that cases that genuinely require it will have an inquest with a jury present.
On Amendment 6, in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, we see no useful purpose in maintaining the status quo in relation to prison deaths and requiring that all deaths in prison, whatever their cause, should be investigated by way of an inquest held with a jury. If there is any reason to suspect the death was of violent, unnatural or unknown cause, the coroner will have to hold any inquest with a jury. I see no need for a jury inquest for a death from wholly natural causes in a prison hospital, for example, when a similar death, should it occur in a general hospital, would almost certainly not even warrant an investigation, let alone an inquest with a jury.
There would, of course, continue to be an inquest into deaths in prison which do not fall within Clause 7(2)(a). I am in danger of repeating myself, but if the coroner feels that there is a need to call a jury because, for example, concerns about the standards of care, even though irrelevant to the cause of death, emerge from preliminary investigations, then he or she may summon a jury under the discretionary powers outlined in Clause 7(3). It may be the case in future that investigating natural deaths in prison or other forms of state detention is an area on which the Chief Coroner chooses to issue guidance or arrange for further specialist training for coroners.
On Amendment 7, we entirely understand the argument that an inquest into the death of a person caused by an act or omission of a member of the security services should be held with a jury. I am sorry if I appeared disparaging to the noble Lord when we debated this matter last time; I certainly did not intend to be. However, I have to repeat that we are unaware of any such deaths being subject to inquests within at least the last 50 years. That being the case, I remain unpersuaded that there is a need for the amendment. The powers already contained in the Bill will be sufficient to ensure that any inquest into such a death in the future could take place with a jury.
We do not support this amendment because of the potential that it contains for substantially increasing the number of inquests that would require a jury to be summoned. This could include, for example, road traffic incidents. It has been argued by some campaigners that almost all road traffic deaths involve issues of public safety and that, therefore, all inquests into them should be held with a jury. At present, this is not usually the case, as many coroners choose to interpret the legislation so as not to include such deaths. In fact, if you were to interpret it otherwise, it could be argued that in very many cases you were predetermining the outcome of the inquest.
Should this provision remain on the face of primary legislation, as this amendment would allow, there are genuine concerns, I submit, that there would be considerable pressure for this criterion to be more widely interpreted and more generally applied, meaning that a jury would be required in a considerably greater number of cases. Obviously, this would have a major effect on the resources required to conduct a substantially increased number of inquests with juries, but it would not, in our opinion, enhance the effectiveness of those inquests.
Turning to Amendment 10, I again reiterate our view that only those cases that genuinely need a further and additional layer of independent scrutiny should take place with a jury. This amendment would mean that there would need to be a jury in all cases where it may be considered that an inquest might find that an act or omission on the part of the state or a public authority or its employees contributed to the death. Given the wide-ranging nature of what could be considered as a public authority, this could mean that, for example, all deaths reported to a coroner from an NHS hospital where the coroner felt than an inquest was required might in future require a jury, as an NHS trust would be considered as a public authority. Having a jury in each such instance where a public authority might be implicated would substantially increase the number of jury inquests, with a consequent dramatic and serious impact on resources.
Amendments 8, 11 and 12 were tabled by the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig of Radley. The House will know that currently coroners sit alone for the most part when considering the deaths of military personnel on active service. Our understanding is that, on the whole, the bereaved families support this; they want the coroner to sit on his or her own when dealing with their cases. This has not, however, prevented coroners from successfully carrying out investigations into those deaths and investigating all such deaths with a commendable, if sometimes uncomfortable for the Government, degree of vigour and thoroughness; on occasions, they have passed judgments and made comments that have been critical of parts of government. There is no reason to believe that they do not and will not deal with any less rigour with the deaths of military personnel who have been undertaking training or who are under the age of 18.
As I said, the Bill already contains provisions giving coroners discretion to summon a jury if they feel that
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On a more general point, if Article 2 is engaged in a particular inquest, there is nothing in the case law of the European Convention on Human Rights that requires such an inquest to be held with a jury. We maintain, therefore, that the state can meet its Article 2 obligations by a coroner sitting alone or with a jury where there is sufficient reason.
Lord Mayhew of Twysden: I have a question about Amendment 6. If I heard the Minister aright, he said that there was no ground for maintaining the status quo, which, if I understand it correctly, requires that whenever a death takes place in state detention or in custody there shall be an inquest with a jury. Why does he suppose that there is such public confidence in our arrangements for state detention and custody as to warrant departing from the status quo, which has been in existence for a period of years?
We are adding cases in psychiatric hospitals and immigration detention centres. However, our view is that, if a death in custody is quite clearly natural, there is no need for an inquest with a jury. There would not be one for any other natural death, so there should not necessarily be one for a death in prison. That is the change that we are making in the Bill. We are adding some areas of custody if the death is violent or unnatural or the cause of death is unknown, but we are saying that, if deaths in custody are natural, there does not need to be a jury, although there can always be one if the coroner feels that there should be one.
Lord Neill of Bladen: As I heard him, the Minister was objecting to the amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, by using the argument that we should not maintain the existing system of a coroner's inquest automatically when there is a death in prison because-lo and behold-why would we not then want that for every death in hospital? Unless I misunderstood him, that was one of the arguments that he deployed.
Lord Neill of Bladen: Let me just finish the point; the Minister will demolish it, because he obviously thinks that I have got it wrong. The two obvious distinctions between someone who is in hospital and someone who is in prison are, first, that the prisoner has no liberty at all and, secondly, that he is quite
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Lord Bach: I agree with the noble Lord: of course there is a difference between prison and hospital. We are saying in the Bill that, when someone dies naturally in custody, there should not necessarily be an inquest with a jury. There will be an inquest, of course, but there does not need to be one with a jury unless the coroner feels that in the circumstances of the case there should be one.
Lord Bach: We argue that, for natural deaths in custody, there should not necessarily have to be a jury in every case. With deaths in hospital, there might not even be an inquiry, let alone an inquest.
Lord Hunt of Wirral: Coming back to deaths in prison, can the Minister give us examples of where there have had to be inquests with a jury but where, in his opinion, there should not have had to be? I am not quite sure of the justification for what he is saying.
Lord Bach: My Lords, to have an efficient and workable system, what is necessary? Let us take the case of a prisoner who dies from old age or illness, where the cause of death is absolutely clear. Is it in the best interests of the coronial system to have an inquest with a jury? Why, in the majority of cases of natural death, should the coroner not decide on the form of inquest? There will always be an inquest when someone dies in custody: the issue is whether there has to be a jury. I repeat that the failsafe here is that if the coroner, in the case of what looks like a natural death, thinks that there should be a jury hearing, he is entitled to have one under Clause 7.
Lord Ramsbotham: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for his reply, and to all those who have taken part in the debate. I am particularly grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, for mentioning juries in a wider context than I did. I came at this from the understanding that the purpose of a jury in these inquests is to see that incidents of possible negligence are properly investigated. When I was Chief Inspector of Prisons, I saw cases of negligence that led to prisoners dying. They may have died from natural causes, but, looking at the circumstances in which they had been looked after-I am thinking of one case in particular-people must have asked questions about their treatment. Therefore, I can see good reason for changing the rules that have been in existence since the Coroners Act 1988.
On Clause 9, I do not want to refer again to the case of road accidents, which the Minister mentioned. Reading the record of the Committee, it seemed that the argument was effectively destroyed, and I was surprised that it was raised again. I will come back to the question of the discretion of the coroner. Under current legislation, this discretion has frequently been a matter of contention, because it has contributed to inconsistency in practice. That is one purpose of the Bill, and of having a Chief Coroner: to try to eliminate inconsistency, particularly in cases where the death has been at the hands of the state. However, I am grateful that the issues have been raised and beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Lord Craig of Radley: My Lords, the Minister spelt out a number of safeguards available to the Chief Coroner and to relatives of the deceased in the event that the circumstances of the death of a youth in the Armed Forces raise issues of greater public importance. Those safeguards are extremely important. They are now on the record, and I will not press the amendment.
Lord Tunnicliffe: My Lords, the House will recall that in Committee, the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, tabled an amendment aimed at restoring the existing requirements in respect of the minimum and maximum number of persons on a coroner's jury. The Government indicated at the conclusion of the debate on 10 June that we would come back to the House on the matter. As explained previously, we had proposed a reduction in jury numbers in response to problems experienced in a number of coroners' districts with summoning jurors. The process is not centralised, as it is in the Crown Court, and we do not wish to create a new administrative burden by making it so. However, there have been occasions when inquests have had to be adjourned, causing unnecessary delay to bereaved families, because of a lack of sufficient jurors to comprise a properly constituted jury. Nevertheless, the Government have listened to the concerns raised by noble Lords in Committee, and to the view of the
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Lord Thomas of Gresford: My Lords, I raised these issues in Committee and I am very grateful that the Government have listened, and have conceded the amendment. I have nothing more to say than that, in this respect, the Government are a listening Government-that is not what I normally say.
"(a) only one or two of the jury do not agree on it, and"
The Secretary of State shall provide non means-tested funds to ensure that the family of the deceased is legally represented at inquests that engage article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights by virtue of the Human Rights Act 1998 (c. 42)."
Lord Thomas of Gresford: My Lords, the amendment has the support of the Criminal Justice Alliance, which represents some 30 organisations that have been in correspondence with the Secretary of State for Justice on this important issue. I am grateful to the Minister for the opportunity to have a discussion with him prior to our Sitting today, and I hope to hear from him that he has listened to what we have said in relation to the amendment.
I owe it to the House to say something about the purpose of the amendment. In the European Court of Human Rights, in the case of Z v United Kingdom in 2002, the judgment says that there must be a sufficient element of public scrutiny of the investigation into a death and its results to secure accountability in practice as well as in theory. In all cases, the next of kin of the victim must be involved in the procedure to the extent necessary to safeguard his or her legitimate interests.
"The Court considers that the right of the family of the deceased whose death is under investigation to participate in the proceedings requires that the procedures adopted ensure the requisite protection of their interests, which may be in direct conflict with those of the police or security forces".
"Public funding must be provided for bereaved families for proper legal representation at timely inquests relating to deaths in state custody that engage the state's obligations under Article 2 of the European Convention on Human rights. Funding should not be means tested and any financial eligibility test should be removed whenever Article 2 is engaged. Funding should also cover reasonable travel, accommodation and subsistence costs of families' attendance at inquests".
In addition to those powerful voices, I refer to what was said by Miss Harriet Harman in March 2008 on the Floor of the House in another place. She said that the coroner system needed to be made fairer for bereaved families and that:
"I agree with the hon. Gentleman that if bereaved relatives with no legal representation turn up on the steps of a coroner's court and find that the Ministry of Defence and the Army have a great battery of solicitors and QCs, they cannot help but feel that the position is unfair".-[Official Report, Commons. 13/3/08; col. 421.]
I respectfully suggest to the House that the importance of having bereaved families properly represented is always viewed one way. Why is that? It is because inquests that include bereaved families and public authorities, such as the police, the Prison Service or the military, involve highly contentious issues, one of which is often the question of disclosure-a matter that we discussed a little earlier today in the context of intercept evidence. At times it is necessary to make applications for the disclosure of information but the demands of the bereaved families are often at odds with what the state and public authorities wish to maintain. In military inquests, the MoD often raises national security as a reason for non-disclosure or redaction, but sometimes, upon challenge by legal representatives of the bereaved, this turns out to be nothing more than embarrassing or problematic evidence against the state. Therefore, when it is necessary to tease out problems of disclosure and the provision of information, legal representation is very necessary.
However, interested parties may sometimes face criticism. I remind your Lordships of the inquest into the death of James Collinson, a young recruit who died at Deepcut barracks. In that case, two soldiers who were on duty with the deceased at the time of his death were separately represented by independent counsel at the inquest, funded by the taxpayer, and advised by lawyers provided for them by the Ministry of Defence. These were two people who could conceivably be implicated in the death at Deepcut and they had full legal representation paid for by the taxpayer. That is in addition to the Ministry of Defence, which would always be separately represented, again at the taxpayer's expense.
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