Covid-19 is impacting upon everyone’s lives at the moment. It is a time of great uncertainty for many but for those who have experienced bereavement it is particularly distressing.
Inquests will undoubtedly be subject to disruption given the current lockdown but also due to the rising number of deaths that will result from coronavirus. Not all deaths will be as a result of the virus. Some will be indirect as a result of limited access to healthcare or as a consequence of being in detention. The demands of Coroners and their teams will undoubtedly be pushed in an unprecedented direction.
The Chief Coroner of England and Wales has published guidance regarding the impact of the current situation on the Coronial service.
Covid-19 is a direct or underlying cause of death for completing the medical certificate of cause of death but it is not good reason alone to refer a death to a coroner. In some situations it may only be suspected as a cause of death which means that no precise cause of death can be signed off by the attending doctor. In those circumstances a report to the coroner will be necessary.
The rising demands on the Coronial service will follow on from the demands placed on the NHS. Post mortem examinations to confirm the cause of death might not always be possible with rising death tolls. In those circumstances the Coroner may have to proceed to allow the death to be registered without a post mortem. It will be a balance between medical evidence and witness statements of those who over the deceased who will help determine the route to be taken.
A short inquest can be held, reliant on documentary evidence only to reach a conclusion as to the cause of death. This may specify Covid-19 as the cause or it may be that there is still some uncertainty in which case it would be an unknown cause. Alternatively, where the death is not wholly attributable to Covid-19 (such as where there are other health related issues or deaths in prison or custody) an inquest may be opened and adjourned to a later date. This will allow for loved ones to bury or cremate the deceased and for all relevant evidence to be gathered.
Inquests must be held in public. They cannot therefore be held remotely. However, witnesses can give evidence remotely. As a consequence of social distancing guidelines the Chief Coroner’s guidance has led to the postponement of all jury inquests until after 28 August 2020. Interested parties will be invited to agree to conclude inquests on a documentary basis. Families are entitled to refuse this but will have to accept that there will be a delay.
Covid-19 is a notifiable disease which in normal circumstances has to be reported to Public Health England for the coronial service and dealt with via a jury inquest. However, the emergency Coronavirus Bill provides that in the case of a Covid-19 death an inquest can be held without a jury. Other factors may still lead to some inquests requiring a jury. Sadly it is inevitable that this is in anticipation of an increased number of deaths.
If you need help to navigate the Coronial system then please contact SHU Law. We work with other law firms in the region to help ensure that relatives of the deceased can get the help and guidance that they need at the most distressing time in their lives.