A NEW assistant coroner is to be appointed to help deal with the “considerably” higher number of deaths expected this year.

The Teesside and Hartlepool Coroner’s Service is the busiest coronial service in the North-East with 3,013 deaths being reported and 395 inquests being opened in 2019.

The number of deaths was a five per cent increase from 2018, and is expected to be higher this year due in part to Covid-19, according to a report from Hartlepool Borough Council’s solicitor.

The coronavirus pandemic and subsequent lockdown has also led to a backlog of inquests, as they were not able to be held.

Nationally the Chief Coroner suggests most coronial services require four to six assistant coroners, while The Tees and Hartlepool Coroner Service currently has only two active assistant coroners.

The senior coroner for the Tees and Hartlepool Service has therefore identified the need to appoint at least one additional assistant to deal with the extra work.

Although Middlesbrough Council is the leading authority in appointing the assistant coroner, all other local authorities in the area, including Hartlepool Borough Council, are consulted.

Councillors on Hartlepool’s finance and policy committee unanimously agreed to the decision, making them the final of the required local authorities to agree to do so.

Neil Wilson, assistant chief solicitor at Hartlepool Borough Council, said: “This year of course will be impacted significantly by the Covid-19 outbreak and the expectation that deaths and inquests will increase considerably.

“To compound matters further the Covid-19 lockdown has resulted in inquest hearings not being able to proceed and there is therefore a backlog of inquests waiting.”

The cost to Hartlepool Borough Council of the appointment is expected to be about £3,000 a year, and the cash for this year could be covered by funding from the Government to specifically tackle the Covid-19 outbreak.

Ordinarily it would be necessary to hold an open competition for an assistant coroner, but the Chief Coroner has made provision for local authorities to appoint assistant coroners without this process.

This decision has been made to assist coroner’s services deal with all of the extra work the Covid-19 pandemic has brought.

To avoid any delay in addressing the current backlog, the senior coroner therefore recommended an appointment of a local so