Regulators’ efforts to improve standards in coroners’ courts stalling

Standards: No uptick in reports of poor performance

A cross-regulator effort to improve the standard of practice in coroners’ courts has had limited effect, the first evaluation of the initiative has found.

While awareness of a set of competencies and other resources published in September 2021 was good, the evidence of its impact in improving standards was patchy, with coroners themselves mainly reporting little change.

A majority of coroners responding to a survey issued by the Bar Standards Board (BSB) felt that standards had remained the same following the publication of the resources, “although a significant minority did feel that standards had improved”, the evaluation noted.

“It seems clear that for the majority of coroner respondents there remains work to be done to ensure that standards improve,” it said.

The competencies were published jointly by the BSB, Solicitors Regulation Authority and CILEx Regulation in response to concerns about standards in coroner’s courts. They were developed in consultation with the chief and deputy chief coroners, practitioners, the Ministry of Justice and bereaved families.

The evaluation received survey responses from 198 barristers and 45 (out of 305) coroners, and held a roundtable with stakeholders.

It found that 95% of coroners and 75% of barristers were aware of the resources and most were using them and finding them helpful.

Among roundtable participants and barrister respondents, the evaluation said, “some felt the resources were having an impact on coroners’ courts proceedings” but others found it “limited or non-existent, and more needed to be done to address issues in this area”.

The most common suggestion from coroners to improve standards was to raise awareness of the resources themselves, “with some responses highlighting that a number of practitioners still seemed unaware of the resources, or that adversarial approaches which were harmful to participants were still an issue”.

The resources were also meant to increase reporting of practitioners for poor practice but BSB data showed no change since they were published – this was even though just over half of coroner respondents said they were now more likely to report.

The evaluation said: “Several participants [at the roundtable] mentioned the challenges of calling out or reporting poor practice.

“Some barriers mentioned were that a particular approach by an advocate could be because of instructions from the party they were representing and, therefore, it would be unfair to report them, or that coroners or other stakeholders were concerned about reporting poor practice due to the potential impact on someone’s career or uncertainty around any consequences for them personally.

“Additionally, it was felt that reporting of poor practice should be the responsibility of the professionals involved in the process, rather than other participants such as witnesses or family members.”

However, a number of participants felt that the resources – in particular by setting out of the core expectations around competences required – “helped both clarify a route to report poor practice if they felt it was warranted and/or to ensure that any report was genuinely based around an advocate failing to meet expectations that had been clearly set out”.

But the preference for most was still “to deal with poor practice in the context of the inquest itself, either by addressing the issue in questioning or in instructions to participants”.

The BSB said it would work with the other two regulators to consider amending and expanding the resources, as well as other stakeholders to raise awareness of them.

Rupika Madhura, the BSB’s interim director of standards, said: “Barristers practising in inquests in the coroners’ courts face a unique set of challenges. It is therefore crucial that their professional skills and specialist knowledge are up to date in order for their advocacy to be effective.”

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