Coroners' offices across region could be scrapped over 'too low' death rates

First published in News

UP to seven coroners’ offices across the region will be axed, under cost-cutting plans to scrap those where the number of deaths is “too low”.

Lord Chancellor Chris Grayling is considering a proposal for each coroner area to handle 3,000 to 5,000 cases each year – culling at least 24 across England and Wales.

That would mean about seven disappearing in the North-East and North Yorkshire, where coroners are currently overseeing as few as 340 deaths annually.

None of the 12 offices in the region reach the new threshold, according to 2013 figures – with County Durham and Darlington (2,445 deaths) the busiest.

Hartlepool has the lowest number (340), followed by South Northumberland (428), North Northumberland (656), North Tyneside (758) and York (985).

Merging York with the offices in North Yorkshire Eastern (1,040) and North Yorkshire Western (1,038) would just about reach the 3,000 benchmark.

However, bringing together the much-criticised Teesside office (2,398) with Hartlepool (340) – a proposal already put forward – would still fall well short.

The mergers are proposed in an annual report by the newly appointed chief coroner,

Judge Peter Thornton QC.

Judge Thornton noted that 60 per cent of coroner areas across the country have fewer than 2,000 reported deaths.

And he wrote: “That number of reported deaths is too low and many areas have only a part-time coroner.

“Each coroner area should have approximately 3,000-5,000 reported deaths each year, with a full-time senior coroner in post.”

The plan, handed to the Ministry of Justice, would see the 99 coroner areas slashed to “about 75 in number, maybe fewer”.

It is not clear how many coroner courts would close – as opposed to offices – if the merger plan is adopted.

The annual statistics also compare how quickly each coroner’s area completes inquests, on average – revealing Teesside to be by far the slowest still.

In April, 83-year-old coroner Michael Sheffield was finally forced to step down from his role after a concerted campaign by local politicians and others.

Initiatives were launched to clear a backlog of inquests, which take an average of 50 weeks to complete, the annual report shows.

That is much longer than the next slowest area York (36 weeks), which is followed by Newcastle (31) and both services in North Yorkshire (25).

The fastest inquests are carried out in Hartlepool (11 weeks), followed by Sunderland (14), Gateshead and South Tyneside (19) and County Durham and Darlington (24).

Coroners have been reminded of their duty to set dates for inquests at the opening of each case - and for a medical report to be produced within four to six weeks.

They must explain, to the chief coroner, why investigations that have taken more than a year have not either been completed or discontinued.

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