Press attacks plans to limit inquest access

Proposals to restrict press access to inquests have been condemned by the newspaper industry.

A Government-commissioned independent review has proposed wide-ranging changes to the coroners service in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Among 122 suggested changes are proposals to limit the use of public inquests.

The review was commissioned by the Home Office partly in response to weaknesses in the coroners system highlighted by the case of Dr Harold Shipman, who murdered 215 of his patients over a 23-year period.

Currently all suspicious deaths are subject to a public inquiry, held by a coroner, which press and public are entitled to attend.

The Fundamental Review of Death Certification and Coroner Services states: “The public inquest would be used more selectively so that fewer families would be subject to delay and publicity.

“Routine and automatic public inquests, for example into all suicides, would cease and be replaced by objective professional investigations conducted out of the glare of publicity.”

The review has also suggested that coroners have the power to ban publication of inquest evidence in the interests of the privacy and well-being of bereaved families.

Both the Society of Editors and the Newspaper Society oppose the changes.

Society of Editors executive director Bob Satchwell said: “We would agree that it is time for a limited review of the inquest system – but one thing which should never be changed is that inquests should be held in public.

“It’s a vital protection for individuals that whenever an unexplained death happens it’s properly investigated and recorded in public.

“The sort of places where deaths go uninvestigated and unrecorded are banana republics and we don’t want to go down that road.

“When you start restricting public and media access to any of the courts you start down a slippery slope.

“This is not just about freedom of the media, it’s about protection of individual members of the public.”

Santha Rasaiah, legal advisor for the Newspaper Society, said: “We will be looking in detail at the Fundamental Review’s recommendations and the Government’s response – in particular the extent to which public scrutiny and press reporting could be reduced.”

Regarding the possibility of coroners banning the publication of evidence to protect privacy, she said: “This could obviously result in stringent reporting restrictions based on criteria that take no account of the importance of open justice.”

The review was carried out over a period of 18 months and involved interviews with 400 bereaved families.

It has also suggested replacing the system of locally appointed coroners with a new national professional service and a charter of rights for bereaved families.

A Home Office spokesman said the Government would release a response to the report later this summer.

By Dominic Ponsford

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