Pre Inquest Review Hearings (PIRHs)

Inquest Representation ServiceThe Chief Coroner, His Honour Judge Peter Thornton QC used his judgment in the recent case of Brown v HM Corner for Norfolk [2014] EWHC 187 admin – read the judgment to glean some useful guidance on how to approach a Pre-Inquest review hearing. (PIRH) There were some other practical but noteworthy observations aimed at preventing the family of the bereaved, or other interested persons from being (or feeling) excluded from the process, or forming an impression of bias or pre-determination on the part of the Coroner.

There should be an agenda for the PIRH that should include (particularly in more difficult or complex cases):

  • A list of interested persons;
  • A proposed list of witnesses identifying those who may be called and those whose statements may be read;
  • The issues to be considered at the inquest
  • The scope of the evidence;
  • Whether a jury will be required;
  • Whether Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights is engaged;
  • Any issues of disclosure;
  • The date of the final hearing;
  • Any other relevant matters;
  • In a complex or more difficult investigation, interested persons should be invited to respond to the Coroner’s agenda in advance of the PIRH in writing stating what they agree with and what they do not agree with. [If appropriate, the Coroner should express provisional views about the agenda so that agreement or opposition can be expressed.]

The Chief Coroner stated the need for sufficient advance disclosure of the evidence to all interested persons to enable them to respond to the agenda on an informed basis. This may sound like common sense, but part of the complaint in this application for a fresh inquest was that the family had not received copies of the post mortem and toxicology reports.

Guidance on avoiding the impression of bias or pre-determination was given in these three passages of the judgment:

  1.  “Coroners should avoid giving the impression at a pre-inquest review hearing (and in any documentation supplied before it) that the findings and conclusions of the inquest are in any way pre-determined, even when the evidence points substantially in one direction. It may be necessary to explain in clear language to unrepresented families that there is a difference between seeking to identify the key issues and coming to a final conclusion.” [para 42];
  2. “Coroners should at all times take care in their dealings with interested persons not to give the impression of bias or favouritism. Coroners may need to communicate to police officers investigating on their behalf, but their communications, whether oral or written, should be made in such a way that they will not, as Lord Justice Pitchford expressed it, engender concern to others that their interests were being treated as secondary.” [para 43]
  3. A coroner should therefore be careful in correspondence with an interested person, such as the police, not to appear to be too familiar or close to the correspondent and not encourage the same from the correspondent, even though the coroner may know the correspondent well in the course of coroner work. This was one of the claimant’s complaints. Even the use of first names may not look good to an outsider, particularly to somebody of the older generation. Coroners should only write letters (and emails) in the course of their work which will stand the test of looking fair and unbiased if and when read out in court in litigation.

 

Even the issue of accurate tape recording of the PIRH came under scrutiny. [This is required by Rule 26 of the Coroners (Inquests) Rules 2013.] It is not just a case of ensuring the equipment is working well, those who speak in court must do so in a way that the recording can be transcribed with accuracy and in full. Why? Because an incomplete transcript may open the door to allegations of tampering and deliberate and fraudulent removal of key questions and answers.

The Chief Coroner viewed his comments as “being made in the hope that repeated good practice will avoid or at least reduce the number of complaints which may be levelled at coroners in the future, particularly about pre-inquest review hearings.” The proof of the pudding will be in the eating. Hopefully if every PIRH follows the agenda, and all coroners maintain clear professional boundaries with those whom they come into regular contact, other interested persons who are new to the world of inquests will have a more consistent experience.

Arranging for a lawyer to advise and/or represent you at a PIRH can be pivotal in trying to obtain the correct focus for the inquest itself.  To speak to one of our layers at Inquest Representation Service  please call 033 00 77 00 97