Agency outrage over coroner's address secrecy

A London-based news agency is involved in a dispute with one of the UK’s busiest coroner’s courts over an apparent refusal to reveal the addresses of the deceased.

Central News has said that Southwark Coroner Dr Andrew Harris has repeatedly refused to out give addresses to its reporters – making it virtually impossible to sell on stories to newspapers.

Editor Guy Toyn said: ‘It’s an outrage. The central problem is this: if I don’t have an address for the deceased I can’t put it in a newspaper. Technically, there’s also a libel problem as well.

‘There isn’t a specific rule that says you must supply the addresses of the deceased, but one of the functions of the coroners court is to find out who the person was.”

Both the Ministry of Justice and Southwark Council told Press Gazette they had no power to force the coroner to make the information available to reporters.

A spokesperson for the MoJ said: ‘If they [coroners] don’t see that they should I don’t know want the comeback is.

‘We don’t regulate coroners. We hold the Coroner’s Act, which says how the system should work, but in terms of how they run things day-to-day they’re completely independent.”

Local authorities are responsible for hiring the local coroner but a representative from Southwark Council said it had no direct control over how they operate.

‘He’s independent,’said a spokesperson, ‘It’s totally up to them. We have no control over them whatsoever.’

‘Logical that the press should be given addresses’

Media law expert and consultant Cleland Thom said there was no specific law requiring coroners to give out addresses, and they were entitled to withhold the information if it compromised national security.

He also noted the Data Protection Act does not apply to dead people and neither does the law of privacy.

‘The Coroners Rules 1984, rule 17, say that all inquests should be open to the press, but journalists can be excluded for all or part of an inquest on the grounds of national security,’said Thom.

‘The rule doesn’t say that the court has to provide the press with information, it’s logical that the press should be given addresses that would be, or have been, read out in court.

He added: ‘The Home Office sent out a circular in 1980, and a reminder in 1987, urging coroners to make arrangements to ensure that the media were properly informed of all inquests. This didn’t specifically mention addresses, though.”

Dr Andrew Harris was away on leave but a spokesperson at his office quoted from a letter he sent to Central News which stated that coroners have discretion over what information is verbally disclosed in open court, adding: ‘I don’t respect your assertion that without the full address of the deceased the case cannot be covered.”

The coroner also stated that ‘personal details enter the public domain in the Registry Office, which presumably offers a source for journalists doing research for a retrospective article”.

Toyn, meanwhile, believes the current system means that coroners are essentially ‘a law unto themselves”.

‘It’s an ancient office and it appears no-one is going to put their hands up and say, ‘If they make a mistake I’m in charge,”he said.

‘Across the wider industry it appears to me they’re really making an effort to help the press and at last accept how important the press is in open justice and the wider democratic process.

“You shouldn’t be able to carry on like this in the 21st century.”

He added: ‘All I want is for my reporters to be able to cover the basic details of a coroner’s inquest: who someone was, where they reside and how they died.”

‘We’re the only specialist court and tribunal agency in England, and it’s going to come to a stage where we just don’t bother turning up.

‘That will be another court that won’t be covered.’

  • To contact the Press Gazette newsdesk call 020 7336 5327 or email pged@pressgazette.co.uk

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