Are Coroners Bill proposals a gag too far on the press?

As the battle rages between the media and those who want greater privacy at inquests, the legal points need to be kept in focus.

Existing law is contained in the Coroners Act 1988 and the Coroners Rules 1984, with the following key features for reporters:

Rule 17 requires every inquest to be held in public, except that the public and press may be excluded ‘in the interest of national security”.

However, rule 37 provides that a coroner may dispense with oral testimony and admit certain evidence in documentary form. Written evidence admitted under this rule must be read aloud, unless the coroner ‘otherwise directs”. In practice, coroners often direct that intrusive material – such as suicide notes and psychiatric reports – is only outlined and not read out in full.

Coroners also have power to order reports of an inquest to be postponed, or information withheld from the public permanently, under S.4 and S.11 of the Contempt of Court Act 1981 respectively. And they can impose anonymity orders for children, under S.39 of the Children and Young Persons Act 1933.

The Government’s draft Coroners Bill proposes controversial new powers to restrict reporting even further.

Clause 30 states that a ‘senior’coroner (as distinct from an ‘area’or ‘assistant’coroner, as defined in the Bill) may give a direction that prohibits the publication of the name of the deceased or of any ‘interested person”, and of any information that could lead to the identification of such persons.

Clause 76 defines ‘interested person’widely, as ‘a spouse, civil partner, partner, parent, child, brother, sister, grandparent, grandchild, child of a brother or sister, stepfather, stepmother, half-brother, half-sister or friend of long standing of the deceased”.

Freedom of expression could therefore be significantly curtailed. Contravention would be punishable as contempt of court.

There would also be a new power, under Clause 44, to exclude ‘persons of any description”, including reporters, from an inquest when an under-17 witness is giving evidence. However, the Bill’s explanatory notes say that the coroner ‘must allow one nominated representative of the press to remain”.

Clause 60 provides an ‘interested person’with a right of appeal against a reporting direction to a new figurehead, ‘the chief coroner”. Currently, coroners’ decisions must be challenged by judicial review.

In the appeals context, an ‘interested person’has a broad definition, set out in Clause 76, which includes ‘any person with a sufficient interest”. The media would lay claim to a ‘sufficient interest’to appeal any reporting direction that interfered with their right to receive and impart information freely under Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

Many consider that, far from placating a deceased’s relatives with greater privacy, the Bill’s new powers to gag the press would actually increase mourners’ distress, by causing delays as restrictions are appealed.

Others believe that Clause 5 of the Press Complaints Commission’s Editors’ Code of Practice already provides sufficient safeguards against insensitive press intrusion into personal grief and suicide methods, and that extra measures are unnecessary and retrograde.

It remains to be seen, in the light of vocal media opposition, whether the new reporting restrictions will make it onto the statute book, or be scrapped on the basis that there is a paramount public interest in open reporting of inquests and existing laws and safeguards are entirely adequate.

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