A weekly newspaper has won a 19-month legal battle to get complaints about its local coroners service made public.
The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) has ruled Essex Council committed four legal breaches by failing to release the information after the Yellow Advertiser requested it under the Freedom of Information Act in June 2014.
The ICO said the authority had failed to properly search for information, failed to release it within the legal time limit and that the small amount it did release was improperly redacted.
YA reporter Charles Thomson requested details of complaints made about the service in July 2014, a month after senior Essex coroner Caroline Beasley-Murray received an official sanction from the Judicial Conduct Investigations Office, for delaying an inquest.
The coroners service has no legal duty to comply with the Freedom of Information Act so the YA, which runs a series of newspapers across Essex and East London, requested information held by Essex Council, to which the service is attached.
The information, published on the YA’s website on Wednesday evening, revealed claims complainants had to wait up to six years for their relatives’ deaths to be investigated and showed that between 2009 and 2014, Essex Council recorded 43 complaints about delays in the coroners service.
However, some formal complaints logged before 2011 had been deleted by the time Essex Council conducted a proper search under the ICO’s instruction, meaning others could have been lost since the YA requested them.
The documents also revealed continual complaints about poor communication of information from the coroner’s service to families, as well as to the press, while one complaint alleged the service was ‘not sharing public interest information’.
For five of the surviving complaints, the council said it logged too few details to be able to provide the YA with even a one-line summary of what they had been about – while the authority also received two complaints from funeral directors about ‘delays’ and one from a crematorium.
YA editor-ion-chief Mick Ferris told HTFP: “There are two key points here. The first is Essex Council, a public body, refusing to release basic information, which is a trend we are observing increasingly in our daily work and which must be highlighted and challenged.
“The fact that it took 19 months to obtain one-line summaries of complaints made about a public-funded service, from information held by another public-funded service, is unacceptable.
“But the second point is that even though it can feel sometimes like you’re fighting a losing battle, perseverance can and does pay off. It may have taken Charles 19 months, but he won the day and the victory was resounding.
“Essex Council not only had to release the information, but was criticised in the official report and has had to apologise and retrain its staff.”
An Essex Council spokesman said: “We acknowledge that on this occasion we did not provide all of the information we could have done and in recent months we have undertaken additional training with staff to improve their ability to better manage requests for information.
“We are continually looking to improve our customer service and much of this work has been taking place since the period this request covers.”