R (Heinonen and Sawko) v Senior Coroner for Inner South London [2017] EWHC (Admin) 1803 (judgment here)

It is often distressing for a bereaved family to contemplate their loved one being subject to a post-mortem examination, even in the context of a wish to have the cause of their death explained.  When the resultant autopsy report contains an inaccurate physical description of the deceased, that thereafter remains unexplained, it is unsurprising that a family would seek further investigation of the matter by the Coroner.

However, in a case that provides a clear reminder of the high hurdle claimants must surmount to establish that a coroner’s decision is unreasonable (in the Wednesbury sense), the Administrative Court has upheld this Coroner’s refusal to open an investigation under s.1 CJA 2009, even though significant discrepancies between the description of the body examined and the deceased’s physical characteristics remained unexplained and further avenues that might have more firmly established the identity of the body had not been explored.

“I hope that an apology and some explanation as to how it came about will be forthcoming, I have no power so to order. I can merely express a hope that that will happen in due course”.   Andrews J

R (Maguire) v Assistant Coroner West Yorkshire [2017] EWHC 2039 (Admin) 14 August 2017 (judgment here)

The horrific murder of Mrs Ann Maguire, a school teacher stabbed in her classroom by a 15 year old pupil, justifiably shocked the Nation. Now that William Cornick has pleaded guilty to her murder (and been sentenced to a minimum of 20 years’ detention) Mrs Maguire’s inquest will be resumed; but first the controversial issue of whether some of the school’s pupils tangentially caught up in the events should be called to give evidence at the inquest has had to be resolved.

“The distress of a young witness is not necessarily a reason why that witness cannot or should not give oral evidence.”

Following the murder some pupils had revealed in police interviews what they knew of Cornick’s actions in the period before the killing. These “interviewed pupils” reported how Cornick had at times behaved strangely, making morbid or sick jokes. He had expressed a wish to kill teachers and very shortly before the killing made specific statements about killing Mrs Maguire. Only one pupil had reported this behaviour to a teacher, but by then the murder had just been committed. Most of the other pupils did not take the threatening remarks seriously and so did not report them, assuming he was merely showing off. The one pupil who did take the threats seriously said nothing out of concern that if he did so it may provoke Cormick to attack him. After the killing that pupil had reflected “It’s like I could have stopped it. I did nothing.”

The Claimants (her widower and other members of Mrs Maguire’s family) wanted these “interviewed pupils” called so that the inquest could hear evidence as to the students’ understanding of the school rules relating to weapons in school and whistleblowing, and, for those who had taken no action, to explain why this was. The Claimants emphasised they did not seek to ascribe any blame or criticism to any pupil, but rather wished to minimise the risk of any similar horror occurring in the future. They wanted the inquest to explore lessons to be learned as to how children might be encouraged and supported to share concerns with trusted adults.

His Honour Peter Rook QC has decided to hear the forthcoming inquest into the death of Sean Benton without a jury. Private Benton died from gunshot wounds at Deepcut Barracks in 1995, the first of four deaths at the barracks that have caused enduring public interest and led to numerous investigations. The original inquest, which took place only weeks after his death, was quashed by the High Court in 2016 and new hearings will begin in January 2018.

His Honour Peter Rook QC, formerly Senior Circuit Judge at the Old Bailey, was appointed as Nominated Coroner by the Lord Chief Justice. He was invited by the family of Sean Benton to exercise his discretion to hear the fresh inquest with a jury. His detailed reasons have been published and will be of interest to inquest practitioners, especially those working in military deaths and in cases likely to attract press coverage. They can be viewed here.

Bridget Dolan QC and Jamie Mathieson are instructed as Counsel to the inquest. John Beggs QC and Cecily White have been instructed for the inquest on behalf of Surrey Police, and Paul Spencer of Serjeants' Inn Chambers is instructed to represent a medical professional working at the barracks.

R (Scarfe & Ors) v Governor HMP Woodhill & SoS Justice [2017] EWHC 1194 (Admin) (23 May 2017)  judgment here

HMP Woodhill has achieved the unenviable status of having the highest rate and the highest number of self-inflicted deaths of any prison in the entire prison estate. Thirteen men have died there since 2013 at their own hand, seven of those in the last year. The eleven inquests that have recently been held in the Milton Keynes Coroner’s Court have produced several critical jury findings and a number of PFD1 reports yet the alarming death rate has persisted.

It is unsurprising then that the families of some of the deceased, believing effective changes have not been made, turned to the High Court for action. They argued that the High Court should use its public law powers to ensure that the repeated failings noted in these successive cases were no longer tolerated.

The Woodhill Prison Governor and the Justice Secretary made it clear that they shared the great concern of the Claimants, the Court and other commentators (such as INQUEST who intervened in the proceedings) about the rate of suicides in prisons generally, and at HMP Woodhill in particular. The difficulty for the Claimants, however, was establishing the extent to which the identified problems at HMP Woodhill were capable of solution by means of their application for an order or declaration from the High Court.

R (Gudanaviciene) v Immigration and Asylum First Tier Tribunal [2017] EWCA Civ 352, 11 May 2017 - judgment here

All humans make mistakes, Coroners included. Fortunately for any Coroner reading this, so long as you are merely human (and not flagrantly improper) and you don't seek to defend your errors, then you should not be ordered to pay the successful applicant’s costs of reversing your poor judgment or bad decision-making.

The Court of Appeal considered whether a judicial body should be ordered to pay the costs of a successful application to judicially review its decision where it took no part in those judicial review proceedings.

The Grenfell Tower fire shows the need to give coroners' recommendations more teeth.

On 28 March 2013 the coroner, after verdicts were returned on the deaths of six people in Lakanal House in 2009, made important and potential life saving recommendations - see for example bit.ly/2s85JZL . (These were made under then rule 43 - now the Coroners (Investigations) Regulations 2013 reg 28 and 29).