Thursday, 3 September 2020

JUSTICE report - Reform of major inquests and inquiries


The Guardian 1 September 2020 reported that Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice UK, which represents 1,600 bereaved families, is campaigning for a rapid public inquiry into the government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic and is taking legal action to try to force one, sending pre-action letters to the government.

At Prime Minister's Questions on 2 September, Keir Starmer (Leader of the Opposition) asked whether the Prime Minister would meet with the bereaved families group. Mr Johnson replied that - " .... it turns out that this particular group ... are currently in litigation against the Government, and I will certainly meet them once that litigation is concluded."

In an earlier post 15 April 2020 I wondered
whether there would be any form of inquiry and noted that governments are "not usually too keen to set up inquiries to examine their own conduct."   On 15 July at Prime Minister's Questions, Sir Ed Davey MP (Liberal Democrat) asked the Prime Minister whether he would commit "in principle to a future public inquiry."  The Prime Minister replied - "we will seek to learn the lessons of the pandemic in the future, and certainly we will have an independent inquiry into what happened."  Further detail about what form such an independent inquiry might take was not pursued but a commitment to some form of inquiry is now on record.

Numerous concerns have been raised about inquiries and they have been the subject of a number of critical articles and reports in recent years. For example, see the explainer published by The Institute for Government 21 May 2018.

JUSTICE has published a 130 page report - When things go wrong: the response of the justice system (24 August 2020).  JUSTICE is an all-party law reform and human rights organisation working to strengthen the justice system – administrative, civil and criminal – in the United Kingdom.  Legal commentator Joshua Rozenberg took a look at the report - HERE.

Read the full report here (PDF-version available here)
Read the press release here

The report is the work of a 26-strong group chaired by retired High Court Judge Sir Robert Owen who conducted the Litvinenko Inquiry which reported in January 2016 - previous post.

The report "seeks to address the erosion of public trust in the response of the justice system to deaths giving rise to public concern." Those deaths arise from "major incidents causing multiple fatalities" or they arise from "a pattern of systemic failure." The justice system has to provide a response that is "consistent, open, timely, coherent and readily understandable." Unfortunately, "those systems are too often beset with costly delay and duplication, with insufficient concern for the needs of those affected by disasters. Instead of finding answers through the legal process, bereaved people and survivors are often left feeling confused, betrayed and re-traumatised."

The report makes 54 recommendations.

The framework:

New State and independent bodies would provide oversight and information-sharing. The bodies would include a Central Inquiries Unit within government, the Unit to be supported by an Independent Advisory Board, a full-time Chief Coroner, a special procedure inquest for investigating mass fatalities as well as single deaths linked by systemic failure.

Opening investigations:

Greater collaboration between agencies, building a cross-process dossier, would reduced the multiple occasions that bereaved people and survivors have to recount traumatic events and ensure that they are fully informed throughout the process.

Procedure:

Processes for appointing inquiry chairs and panels, for establishing terms of reference and for providing relevant information and documents to core participants need to be more structured and trasnparent.  Justice wishes to see bereaved people and survivors at the heart of the process.  The report also recommends a statutory duty of candour including a rebuttable requirement for position statements. This, they argue, would foster a "cards on the table" approach and direct the inquiry to the most important matters leading to earlier findings and reduced costs.

Accountability and systemic change:

The report concludes that an independent body should lead oversight and monitoring of the implementation of inquest and inquiry recommendations.

Here is a characteristically detailed and thorough report which merits serious attention by the government and Parliament. It is to be hoped that the report will form the basis for reforms to bring about a more focussed system for handling fact-finding when major incidents occur or the possibility exists of systemic failure.

3 September 2020





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