Chief Coroner’s guidance – COVID-19
27th March, 2020
This guidance from the Chief Coroner applies to reports of death and coroner investigations in England and Wales. It is to assist coroners in continuing to exercise their judicial decisions independently, in accordance with the law, and during the extraordinarily pressured events being faced at present.
Some of the key points to note are detailed below.
Planning for an excess of deaths
In the unfortunate event that there will be a significant number of deaths, planning will fall to the local resilience forum; which includes all relevant local organisations and statutory bodies, who will have prior experience in working in excessive death scenarios.
It is for the coroners to ensure that they are familiar with the local resilience forum plans and discussions required. This will include issues regarding storage capacity and post-mortem examination capacity.
The Chief Coroner adopts the approach taken by the Lord Chief Justice in that no physical hearing should take place unless it is urgent and essential business, and it is safe for all involved. If a hearing is to take place, social distancing must be maintained. All hearings that can take place remotely should do so, if it not possible for social distancing requirements to be met. The expectation is that some hearings will go ahead, most notably Rule 23 hearings. Coroners are reminded that they must however conduct any remote hearings from a court. Decisions as to the most appropriate approach will be left to the senior coroner in that jurisdiction.
As we have already seen, some inquests will be adjourned, most notably those with multiple witnesses and / or a jury.
The guidance stresses the need, when dealing with medical professionals, for coroners to recognise their primary clinical commitments, particularly in these high-pressured times. This could mean avoiding or deferring requests for lengthy reports/ statements and accommodating clinical commitments if clinicians are called as witnesses.
The guidance encourages proactive reviews of outstanding responses to Prevention of Future Death reports and extending timescales for Trusts to respond.
COVID-19 as a natural cause of death
The Chief Coroner supports the position, communicated by NHS England and the Chief Medical Officer that COVID-19 is an acceptable direct or underlying cause of death for the purposes of completing the Medical Certificate of Cause of Death (MCCD) and is considered a naturally occurring disease. This cause of death alone is not a reason to refer a death to a coroner under CJA 2009.
If the cause of death is believed to be due to confirmed COVID-19 infection, there is unlikely to be any need for a post mortem to be conducted and the MCCD should be issued, and guidance is given on how this is delivered to the Registrar in the event of the next of kin/informant being in self-isolation. In a hospital setting the MCCD process should be straightforward because of diagnosis and treatment in life. This may be more complex in a community setting. The Coronavirus Act 2020 however expanded the window for last medical review from 14 to 28 days. Outside of this, the death will need to be reported to the Coroner.
Although COVID-19 is a naturally occurring disease, there may be additional factors around the death which mean it should be reported to the Coroner; for example, the cause of death is unclear, or where there are other relevant factors. Guidance is given to Coroners on how to manage such reported deaths, particularly where post mortem examinations may not be readily availability.
For further information, please get in touch.
Please note that this briefing is designed to be informative, not advisory and represents our understanding of English law and practice as at the date indicated. We would always recommend that you should seek specific guidance on any particular legal issue.
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