The Chief Coroner for England and Wales has given assurances that inquests will remain open to the media during the Covid-19 crisis.
In a letter to the Society of Editors (SoE) HHJ Mark Lucraft QC said he would be writing to coroners to remind them of his guidance issued since the coronavirus lockdown measures were introduced.
The Chief Coroner’s response comes after the SoE wrote to him expressing concerns that inquests in Gwent had been held in private.
“In all guidance I have issued in the course of the current COVID-19 crisis I have sought to underline the important public nature of the work of the coroner,” wrote the Chief Coroner.
“I have made clear that all courts work on the principle of open justice and that hearings that take place … should be taking place in a coroner’s court where the public has access.
“In the light of the requirements for social distancing it may be that there are limits placed on the numbers of members of the public and members of the press who can be present physically in a courtroom, but I know that you and all of your members, as well as the wider public will understand this.
“I will be reminding all coroners of the importance of using modern technology, where it is available to them, so as allow for attendance at hearings. In relation to contact between coroners and the press, I can also assure you I will be reminding all coroners of the guidance I have issued about contact with the media.”
The SoE had written to the Chief Coroner supporting action by the Press Association in issuing concerns that inquests in Gwent had been staged behind closed doors and that in response the Senior Coroner of Gwent had accused PA Media of a lack of respect for the feelings of the bereaved.
“As you will be aware, the only justification for holding an inquest in private is when a coroner deems it is a matter of national security,” wrote the SoE.
“While the current Covid-19 emergency is certainly a crisis for the nation, the SoE does not believe that it warrants inquests being held when the public and media are denied access.”
The Chief Coroner issued guidelines to coroners on March 26 that stated:
- All hearings that can possibly take place remotely (via whatever means) should do so, and other hearings should continue only if suitable arrangements can be made to ensure distancing although the Chief Coroner accepts that in many jurisdictions this may be difficult. Hearings which must continue should be those considered essential business.
- Coroners are reminded that such hearings must in law take place in public and therefore coroners should conduct telephone hearings from a court, not their homes or their office. In the light of the statement of the Prime Minster on March 23, 2020 as to gatherings and travel only where absolutely necessary, hearings taking place in public may mean they take place where only a member of the immediate family is present and with a representative of the press being able to be present.
* ‘The Chief Coroner cannot envisage a situation in the current pandemic where a coroner should be engaging in interviews with the media or making any public statements to the press. All coroners should be focussing on their vitally important judicial role.’