Monday, 1 February 2010

Verdict on inquests

AFICIANADOS of Agatha Christie or similar period detective novels will be accustomed to the all-powerful figure of the coroner.
The man, and yes it always was a man in those days, with joint qualifications in medicine and law held his investigations with the help of supplicant police officers and anyone else he called upon, within days of the suspicious death.
And if he thought he got to the bottom of nefarious deeds he would order the arrest of the person deemed responsible for the heinous crime.
That is not the case now. Coroners come right at the end of the procedural pecking order. The police have to investigate, the facts have to examined by the Crown Prosecution Service, the case has to be heard by magistrates and, more likely than not, the Crown Court, all before the coroner is allowed to have his say.
Take the case of Gordon Park, the convicted killer of his wife Carol thirty years ago, who then hid the body in a bag in Coniston Water. He was found dead in his prison cell at Garth prison, Leyland, last week.
He always denied the murder and campaigners maintained that his death, widely reported as suicide, was proof that he was so tormented by frustration at not being able to prove his innocence that he took his own life. Others said it was proof of his guilt.
The media was full of speculation as to which version was more likely. Yet the matter could have been resolved almost instantly by a confident coroner immune from litigation from aggrieved parties.
If it was suicide, and that is really for the coroner’s inquest to decide, then Park would more than likely have left a note. That note could clear up the mystery once and for all.
But because it was a prison death, the prison and probation ombudsman will have to complete inquiries and report before the inquest is held. So the warring branches of Park’s families are unlikely to get the peace they deserve for a year or more.
In the days when coroners ruled the roost, he wouldn’t have waited for the ombudsman. Even if he did, then he could quite easily have revealed whether a note was left and what it said at the inquest opening, held within days of the death.
The Government could save itself millions of pounds in public inquiries and statutory investigations if it just handed powers back to the coroners.
Nearly every disaster and high profile death is followed by calls for inquiries. Independent and thorough inquests would achieve the same result for a fraction of the cost.
There would be a price to pay in insisting that coroners reaffirmed their priority of getting to the whole truth and stopped giving verdicts designed to protect families from emotional upset and financial penalties imposed by life insurance policies. But that would be a small price and one well worth paying to restore coroners to the status and influence they once held.

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