Bereaved families are being caused distress by an “unwanted” duty for inquests to be carried out into deaths of anyone under a Deprivation of Liberty Safeguards order.
That was the message from the chief coroner in England and Wales, his honour judge Peter Thornton QC, in his 2015-16 annual report, which also warned the duty was causing “unnecessary” work for coroners and piling extra costs on councils.
The report revealed coroners held inquests for 7,183 people who died while under Deprivation of Liberty Safeguards (DoLS) authorisations in 2015. This is the first year figures have been made available, although Thornton said they reflected a “substantially increased” caseload for coroners.
Thornton said the rise was one of the “unanticipated and unwanted consequences of statute and case law combined”, most notably the interpretation of the Supreme Court’s landmark ‘Cheshire West’ ruling in March 2014.
The ruling effectively lowered the threshold of what constitutes deprivation of liberty and in doing so triggered a ten-fold rise in DoLS authorisations. Coroners have been required to hold an inquest for anyone who dies while subject to the DoLS as they are considered as having died in “state detention” under the Coroners and Justice Act 2009.
Thornton said coroners had responded to the requirement with “sensitivity and compassion” but warned the situation was angering families.
“Why they ask, should their elderly relative, who suffered from dementia and has died a natural death, suffer the indignity of the coroner process? There has been unnecessary work for coroners and additional cost for local authorities.”
The chief coroner has proposed that such cases should be removed from the category of “in state detention” under the 2009 act.
In response to the impact of the Cheshire West ruling, the government asked the Law Commission to review the DoLS and propose a replacement legal framework.
In an interim statement on its work, the commission recommended that people who die while subject to a deprivation of liberty authorisation should be scrutinised by medical examiners and not subject to coroner investigation unless there is a specific reason.
“While the chief coroner recognises this is a valid approach and would be an undoubted improvement upon the present position, the chief coroner believes that the action is required immediately. Hence his proposal [to amend the 2009 Act],” the report said.
The Law Commission is due to present its final recommendations to ministers by the end of the year.