Families are being forced to endure agonising
waits for a verdict after the death of a loved one, due to a backlog of
thousands of inquests that could take years to clear.
There are concerns that the antiquated inquest
system is putting lives at risk by failing to identify and highlight the
cause of potentially avoidable deaths early on. The failures have
revived calls for the system to be overhauled and subjected to greater
The concerns were highlighted last week following
the conclusion of the inquests into the deaths of Ian Tomlinson and of the
7/7 victims. Campaign groups said both inquests showed that it was
vital for the system to be well funded.
"A properly conducted and resourced inquest, as
shown by the Tomlinson and 7/7 inquests, plays a key role in scrutinising
the role of the state in contentious cases and in upholding public health
and safety," said Deborah Coles, co-director of campaign group Inquest.
"Delay in holding inquests not only impacts on a
bereaved family's grieving but frustrates the learning process, as proper
public scrutiny of any individual or systemic failings is delayed, resulting
in the ever-present risk of further deaths.
A "postcode lottery" has meant that many parts of
the country endure long waits for inquests because coroners are inundated
Research by think-tank Demos for the Commission on
Assisted Dying has raised startling questions about public access to
coroners' records, and the backlog of inquests. Demos found that, over
the past two years in Leicester alone, at least five families have had to
wait four years or more for an inquest into their loved ones' deaths.
Demos said that there appeared to be no formal system to allow the public to
find inquests records from the past 10 years.
Concerns about disclosure are compounded because
coroners do not have to comply with the Freedom of Information Act.
Demos found that, when some coroners retired, they took their inquest
records with them and there was no official system to track them. The
think-tank said that in some cases older records had been destroyed or filed
"It's remarkable that in this day and age we have
such an archaic and inconsistent system of recording deaths' said Louise
Bazalgette, a researcher at Demos. "The whole process - lengthy delays
in coroners" examinations, the fact that records are not subject to FOI -
harks back to an era when death was shrouded in secrecy.
"We know virtually nothing about how people die in
Britain - the more open we can be about death, the more we can do to prevent
The pressures on the system are expected to
increase as coroners' budgets are cut because of local authority cutbacks.
The latest figures are for 2009 and show that almost 14,000 inquests were
open at the end of the year, with the average inquest taking 26 weeks to be
completed after a death.
But in some areas, the average wait for an inquest
was far longer, leading to a backlog. In Exeter and greater Devon,
where the typical waiting time for the completion of an inquest was 50
weeks, there were 246 outstanding inquests.
The previous government created the post of chief
coroner to oversee the system, improve efficiency and bring in more
accountability, but the coalition government scrapped it to save money.
"The coroners' service has been running for over
900 years, and it seems shocking there is still no one in charge," said
Alison Cox, chief executive of Cardiac Risk in the Young, a charity
campaigning for the post to be reintroduced.