Inquest reporting restrictions 'dead in the water'

Proposals to curb journalists’ ability to report on inquests would lead to greater distress for bereaved families than the current system.

This is the view of leading coroner Mike Singleton, who this week joined a growing revolt against the bill from within the justice system.

Editors have already expressed outrage against the proposals, which would, in the words of Society of Editor director Bob Satchwell, remove the ‘lifeblood of local papers”.

Clause 30 of the draft Coroners Bill, currently under public consultation, would give coroners the power to ban the reporting of the deceased and any information that might lead to their identification, as well as to punish those who ignore controls, in order to protect bereaved relatives from intrusion of their privacy.

Restrictions can be appealed by interested parties – including journalists – under Clause 30.

This month a meeting was held at the Ministry of Justice for coroners and interested groups to discuss the implications of the clause. According to HM coroner for Blackburn, Hindburn and Ribble Valley, Mike Singleton, by the end of the meeting the consensus was that the clause was ‘unworkable”.

Singleton believes that were the clause to be introduced, bereaved families would be likely to endure extra distress, due to prolonged hearings caused by increasing appeals and adjournments.

‘Various people were called to give their opinions at the Ministry of Justice, and the overwhelming view of the stakeholders was that the proposal, while laudable, was unworkable,’he said.

‘It seems to me that while one can understand the principle behind it, it would be unworkable because it would lead to a large number of appeals which would then cause considerable delay. The distress that would cause would be greater than any distress currently caused as a consequence of reporting.

‘The danger comes in how you separate the views of different interested persons; if within the same family some members wanted the matter to be publicised and others didn’t, how would you reconcile that? It was felt far better that the matter should be dealt with in terms of a press code of conduct monitored by the Press Complaints Commission, rather than seeking to gag the press.”

Singleton stressed that members of the public should have more information available to them in terms of what their rights are and what steps they can take if the press is intrusive. ‘There is a grave danger that in trying to assist the few you create mayhem for the many,’he added.

‘The outcome of the meeting could not be interpreted in any other way than that the proposal was dead in the water.”

Ann Chalmers, chief executive of the family support charity the Child Bereavement Trust, is currently in consultation with bereaved families over whether the draft bill is the right way forward.

Although she agrees with the principle of some restrictions in the coroners courts, she believes that it would be difficult to implement the law. ‘Our principle is that bereaved families are the experts and so we need to talk to them about the outcome of the discussions and the issue raised,’she said.

‘We welcome the proposals to restrict reporting in the situation of child death and suicide in principle, but we do have concerns about how it would work in practice.”

Brigitte Chaudhry, founder and president of RoadPeace, the national charity supporting bereaved families and injured road crash victims, agrees that constraints would mean ‘huge bureaucracy’and ‘huge costs”, but she believes above all that reporting restrictions could mean ‘even less thorough investigations, since evidence would not be subject to public scrutiny”.

One of the main causes of concern for Jeff Edwards, chief crime correspondent at the Daily Mirror and chairman of the Crime Reporters Association, is the potential for the bill to be abused.

‘If you have a young chap with a series of convictions for serious motoring offences who then kills himself in a 150mph motorbike accident and in doing so endangers the lives of others, the family may for that reason not want his identity revealed.

‘What happens if his name is already in the public domain, two days after the accident the police release his name and three months later there’s an inquest? There are a lot of circumstances where there could be conflict. I know there may be some circumstances where you want to protect the family from further distress.

‘I am sympathetic to the situation when people have lost a loved one, especially if it is a young person who may have died in particularly distressing circumstances. But I’m concerned that this is another erosion of what ought to be in the public domain.

‘I’m concerned about the whole business of justice being seen to be done. It shouldn’t be a convenient way for people who perhaps have reasons to keep details quiet that are not wholly connected with their own grief.”

Local newspapers would be particularly hard hit by tighter restrictions on reporting inquests. As well as providing many initial reports, inquests are often the spur to campaigns launched to highlight public dangers.

Nottingham Evening Post crime correspondent Guy Woodford said his paper would look to challenge any such restriction in the coroners court.

He said: ‘Inquests are our bread and butter stories. We send someone to the coroners court every day and it produces several good leads and often our splash. This bill would make it very difficult for us to report inquests properly.

‘Our coroner here has worked closely with us on various campaigns, such as campaigns for smoke alarms to be fitted in people’s homes following fatal fires caused by dropped cigarettes, for instance.

‘I’d be very surprised if our coroner uses that legislation. I think it would be a dormant law. We would look to challenge it on every occasion.”

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