Bereaved people have been “failed” by successive governments and by 1 October they should all receive public funding for legal representation at inquests where a public body is represented, MPs have said.
The deadline set by the justice committee reflects longstanding concerns about people who have been bereaved struggling to fund legal representation, including in large, complex cases such as the Hillsborough disaster, while authorities they face in court are represented at taxpayers’ expense.
Another fundamental reform, recommended by the MPs in their wide-ranging review of coroners’ courts is a single unified coroners’ service for England and Wales.
The chair of the justice committee, Sir Bob Neill, said: “For many years, there has been clear evidence that such support is not consistently available across the country. The refusal by successive governments to establish a national coroner service to rectify this is hard to understand.
“We conclude that such a service is necessary to ensure that those who have lost loved ones – sometimes in dramatic and terrible circumstances – can receive the level of help and advice that they need, wherever they may live.”
The MPs say they want to put bereaved people at the heart of the coroners’ service, observing that “there are still pockets of behaviour by coroners where bereaved people are not treated with the respect and consideration that they and their deceased loved ones deserve”.
They say pathology services have been neglected over several years leading to shortages and a “considerable number” of inquests have been delayed because of the pandemic.
Their report, published on Thursday, also calls for a system of appeal against coroners’ decisions to the chief coroner and suggests a new inspectorate to liaise with regulators, follow up on actions promised to coroners and to report publicly when insufficient action has been taken.
Deborah Coles, the director of Inquest, which supports families at coroners’ courts, said: “With this report, the justice committee make clear that to serve the needs of bereaved families and wider society, the coroners system needs fundamental change … There can be no more false starts, broken commitments or shelved recommendations.
“This must be a watershed moment in ensuring a fairer and accountable coronial system in the prevention of avoidable deaths. Too often we hear that ‘lessons will be learned’: this must become an institutionalised practice, not an empty slogan.”
The Ministry of Justice was approached for comment.