Editors fight plan for confidential inquests

Editors are to lobby Parliament to overturn controversial plans to curb the traditional freedom of journalists to report investigations into suspicious deaths.

The Lord Chancellor, Lord Falconer, has plunged the Government into head-on collision with the media by proposing new powers for coroners to impose reporting restrictions at inquests and even bar journalists from identifying the deceased.

Both the public and press could also be excluded from the court when evidence is given.

Reporters who defy the new law, or help others name the deceased, would face prosecution for contempt of court and could be jailed.

The shake up is designed to spare families from pain following child deaths or suicides. But it could lead to many inquests being held effectively in secret and breaches the principle that justice must be seen to be done.

Bob Satchwell (pictured), executive director of the Society of Editors, said: "If we were to move in that direction we would be taking the first step to becoming a banana republic where people vanish from the streets."

After editors expressed their concern, the Newspaper Society vowed to take the campaign against the proposed law to Parliament.

Before introducing legislation, a draft bill will be subject to pre-legislative scrutiny by the Constitutional Affairs Select Committee.

That will provide the newspaper industry and editors with the opportunity to express their concern in evidence to MPs who will then report their own recommendations to ministers.

Constitutional Affairs Minister Harriet Harman said she would also arrange for families who have had recent experience of the coroners' service to give evidence to MPs as well.

Presenting the draft bill, which has 81 clauses and 10 schedules, to Parliament, Lord Falconer and Harman said: "We recognise public inquests as a powerful and valuable part of impartial and independent investigations.

"But we also know of the additional grief and pain that can arise from bereaved people from making public personal details. In some cases, for example some apparent suicides and child deaths, we do not believe that any public interest is served by this process and the bill will give the coroner a power to restrict reporting in these circumstances, by ordering that facts and findings which identify the deceased should not be published."

Satchwell said: "It is outrageous and undermines a fundamental and serious principle. We have always been proud in this country that when someone dies a proper investigation is carried out."

Santha Rasaiah, director of legal and regulatory affairs at the Newspaper Society, said: "There are areas of real concern for regional newspapers, including the new power to make reporting restrictions, to prevent the identification of the deceased, and a new power to exclude the press and public from the court when evidence is being given.

"We will submit our detailed concerns to the select committee. We hope the select committee and the Government will address those concerns."

The proposals also aroused concern in Parliament. Tory constitutional affairs spokesman Oliver Heald said: "The principle of open justice is vital in the English legal system, and it would only be in the most exceptional circumstances that this principle should be broken."

Simon Hughes, Liberal Democrat spokesman, said: "Proposals to close the doors and shut out the public are worrying and should be resisted. The provision of justice must always be seen to be done."

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