19 June, 2020
Just a quick alert for all PiPs (Properly interested persons) currently awaiting Inquest Hearings presently placed "on hold" in light of the COVID-19 lockdown, that plans are afoot to get the hearings moving again.
On 11 June 2020 HHJ Mark Lucraft QC, Chief Coroner, published Guidance Note number 38 entitled;
"Remote Participation in Coronial Proceedings via Video and Audio Broadcast"
This envisages some Inquests being progressed without the need for all PiPs or their representatives to be physically present in Court.
It is the Chief Coroner's view that the presiding Coroner must be physically present in Court at all times during a hearing, and should not be conducting wholly remote hearings, but the Guidance now encourages the use of remote technologies wherever the technology allows, it is in the interests of justice and its use is consistent with the administration of justice. Each Senior Coroner must consult with their own relevant local authority to ensure that there is adequate technology in place.
Whilst the Guidance is not intended to inhibit the use of physical courtrooms where social distancing can be properly observed, it will be particularly helpful where Inquest buildings simply can not accommodate all relevant parties. Indeed a "mix and match" approach could be ordered, where some parties physically attend, and others give evidence via video or audio link from another location entirely, or even another room within the Inquest building.
Section 9 of the Contempt of Court Act 1981 would need to be disapplied by the presiding Coroner to enable the use of sound equipment by the Court, in these specific circumstances. Rule 17 of the Coroners (Inquest) Rules 2013 permits evidence by video-link if it would allow the Inquest to proceed "more expediently." We expect that the current pandemic which has resulted in a nationwide lock-down and strict social distancing, meets the expediency criteria.
As would be expected, the taking of photographs, screenshots, and any secondary "live-streaming" or broadcasting of evidence from the Coroner's Court by any PiP, the press or the public is still prohibited, constituting a contempt of Court.
The guidance is unlikely to greatly assist the progression of jury inquests where audio/ video evidence and parties being variously located may be wholly unsuitable. For non-jury inquests however, this may assist Coroners to reduce their backlogs.
And in case anyone is wondering why the term "Harlequin" is being banded about, it relates to the term used in the antiquity's arena, where non-matching but complementary pieces of furniture or crockery adopt one another to form a new "Harlequin set…!