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Review could close inquests to press

A review is under way which could close some inquests to the press and public.

The Government is examining proposals that might better serve the needs of the modern public, give bereaved families better rights, and provide professionals with better support.

Its review body is questioning the need for public inquests in all cases where people take their own lives – and in certain other types of death, which are routinely given public inquests in England and Wales but not in other countries.

Society of Editors executive director Bob Satchwell said that open reporting of deaths was a basic protection of the public – and hoped his organisation could provide input for the review.

He said: “Our view is that inquests should remain public – it is absolutely fundamental they should remain public because if you take it to the other end of the scale, people could die without any inquest into how they have died.

“It is a basic protection of the public that deaths are investigated in full; there are parts of the world where people simply vanish.

“At the moment the Government is simply looking for comments on the proposals, then it will be reported back to the Home Office to decide on the next move.”

He said the consultation was not simply a matter of how the law might be changed.

“The background has been that different coroners operate in different ways. In the past we have spoken with coroners’ organisations and made a point about the need not just to have the inquest in public but to inform the media properly in advance,” he said.

Whether the inquest was open or closed was also a separate matter to how it was reported – with the Code of Practice detailing how care must be taken with people during their time of bereavement.

Bob said: “Just because the media has a right to report the coroner’s court as a fundamental principle, it does not absolve journalists of the need to exercise care at time of distress for people.”

The proposals invite views on continuing inquest “verdicts” of “accidental death”, “misadventure”, or “natural causes”, for example, or instead a fuller and more considered examination of any systems failures that might have contributed to a death.

Consultation Paper proposals include:

  • a new court structure to deal with coroners’ judicial inquests, with higher courts being available;
  • more predictable and open arrangements for document disclosure and other procedures at inquests;
  • clearer and more reliable rights for bereaved families, including a right to question whether there should be a post-mortem if for religious or other reasons they do not want one, or to request a post-mortem if they want to know more about the cause of death of a family member;
  • a new independent statutory medical audit or examination service to ensure that death certification is being properly and safely done and to support the doctors who do it.

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