Coroners to be encouraged to disclose more information

Coroners are to be encouraged to disclose greater amounts of information to help the media understand inquest hearings.

The move is one of a series of proposals being considered by the new Chief Coroner, Judge Peter Thornton QC.

Judge Thornton told Times legal editor France Gibb in an interview on October 22 that he intended to use powers under the Coroners and Justice Act 2009, which takes effect next June, to give guidance to coroners to encourage greater disclosure of evidence about a death.

"I think that coroners in some areas are reluctant to disclose some material," he told the newspaper.

"I am not talking about secret covert material – or surveillance … but there is a reluctance, they rely on confidentiality too much and I think more [information] should be given to families and their lawyers.

"I need to look at this carefully: there's a variety of views but my general view is in favour of more disclosure, not less. I think that can be done in many cases without difficulty."

The Judicial Communications Office said the Chief Coroner would also be giving Coroners guidance on helping the media, particularly locally, on the listing of cases.

His guidance on helping the media understand hearings better would be given in the light of the Westminster Magistrates' Court case, in which the Court of Appeal held that the Guardian newspaper should be given access to papers used in an extradition case and went on to declare that all courts had the power to disclose to the press documents which were referred to in open court but were not read out.

The Judicial Communications Office spokesman said the Chief Coroner would also consider issuing guidance about Coroners' use of reporting restrictions, including Section 39 of the Children and Young Persons Act 1933, as some coroners appeared not properly to understand the restrictions, and the limits on their powers to impose them.

Judge Thornton, the first Chief Coroner, oversees 400 coroners, deputy and assistant coroners who deal with 250,000 deaths a year.

"I would like to make sure the procedures are good, just and fair and help the bereaved, who are at the heart of this process," he told The Times.

A £500,000 programme would give training to all 400 coroners, their deputies and assistants, while specialist groups would be established to deal with sensitive or difficult inquests.

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