It has long been accepted that the coroners’ courts, which investigate tens of thousands of deaths per year, are in urgent need of reform. But long-awaited changes are now under threat from Ministry of Justice budget cuts, leaving relatives of the dead with an inconsistent system of varying quality. This arguably places the state in breach of is obligations under human rights law.
A death is referred to a coroner when there is reasonable cause to suspect that it was violent or unnatural, or if the cause is unknown. In 2009, just under half of around 460,000 deaths were reported to the coroner, and 31,000 inquests were then opened. Inquests are rarely out of the news; for example, today calls were renewed for an inquest into the death of David Kelly. In the absence of obvious negligence or suspicious circumstances triggering a criminal investigation or compensation claim, inquests are often the only chance for relatives to get to the bottom of how a person died.
R (Humberstone) v Legal Services Commission  EWHC 760 (Admin) – Read case
Part 2 of Matthew Hill’s feature on the duty to investigate deaths under human rights law (read Part I).
A recent High Court decision (see previous post) concerning the funding of a party at a coroner’s inquest has highlighted the importance of distinguishing between the two different types of investigative duty that arise under Article 2 ECHR.
It is argued in this post that imprecise terminology and a failure to appreciate that Article 2 is engaged in Jamieson as well as Middleton inquests has confused this area, and that the learned judge in R (Humberstone) v Legal Services Commission  EWHC 760 (Admin) erred by eliding the investigative duties and the case-law from which they emerged.
This is Part I of Matthew Hill’s feature. Click here for Part II.
A recent decision of the Strasbourg Court has reopened the issue of the State’s obligation to investigate deaths under the European Convention on Human Rights, leaving a tension between the European Court’s view and that of the highest UK court.
In Silih v Slovenia (2009) 49 E.H.R.R. 37, the European Court looked again at the question of whether the investigative obligations under Article 2 ECHR have retrospective effect in domestic law. A majority of the Court held that Slovenia’s failure to provide an effective independent judicial system to determine responsibility for the death of a patient receiving medical treatment violated Article 2 even though the death itself took place before the Convention came into force in that state.
R (Smith) v Secretary of State for Defence & Anor  UKSC 29 – Read judgment
The Supreme Court has ruled by a 6-3 majority that the Human Rights Act does not apply on the battlefield and soldiers are not automatically entitled to inquests arising from deaths in foreign conflicts.
The case related to Private Jason Smith, a member of the Territorial Army who died from heatstroke in Iraq in 2003.
The decision has come as a relief to the Ministry of Defence. In recent years, coroners have been highly critical of the armed forces’ protection of soldiers on the battlefield, and this case had the potential to open up the Government to a series of claims for compensation by soldiers and their relatives. However, the Supreme Court has (narrowly) taken the view that the Human Rights Act 1998 was not designed to apply in such cases.
We have been alerted to a 1-day seminar organised by Lexis Nexis on Inquest Law and the latest changes including those introduced by the Coroners & Justice Act. The seminar is on Wednesday 22 September 2010 in central London.
We posted last week on the duties to investigate deaths imposed on states under Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights, particularly in the context of public inquiries and inquests.
The seminar includes a comprehensive-looking agenda, including a session on The State’s duties under Article 2 ECHR: The Human Rights Act and inquests, run by Hugh Southey QC of Tooks Chambers.
Recent weeks have seen considerable media attention paid to the role of inquests and their increasing significance for relatives of the deceased.
Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights, providing legal protection for everyone’s right to life, in some circumstances requires investigation into a death such as an inquest. It places a duty upon the state to ensure the investigation is properly conducted. This may entail providing funding, such as legal aid given to relatives so they may be represented at the hearing.
On 1 May 2010, The Times published “How coroners have become the public voice of grieving relatives” which considered the trend in recent years for coroners to take a role similar to that taken by a chair of a public inquiry. Frances Gibb wrote that David Ridley, a coroner in an inquest for two soldiers killed in Afghanistan, made comments which will give some comfort to grieving relatives. Only two days earlier, another coroner, David Masters, “castigated US authorities’ failure to cooperate in an investigation into the “friendly fire” deaths of three British soldiers”.
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