14 January 2009
Modernisation of the coroners system and better protection for witnesses during criminal investigations were amongst the new measures announced by Justice Secretary Jack Straw in Parliament today when he published the Coroners and Justice Bill.
The Bill is another element of the government's drive to deliver a fairer, more transparent and responsive criminal justice system that puts the needs of victims at its heart.
Justice Secretary Jack Straw said:
'Putting the needs of victims and the witnesses of crime at the heart of the criminal justice system is essential in order that people's confidence is maintained and everyone is reassured that justice is on the side of the law-abiding majority. This Bill will make a significant contribution to our reform of the criminal justice system.'
Key measures include:
- Reforms to the coroner system that will see the appointment of a senior judge to the new post of Chief Coroner for England and Wales, new national standards for coroners' investigations, new powers to transfer investigations from one area to another in order to prevent backlogs for both military and non-military inquests; and measures that ensure that coroners' verdicts are accurate and based on all available evidence, even if the evidence cannot be made public.
- The Bill includes revised proposals with strengthened safeguards where non-jury inquests are deemed necessary on national security or certain other grounds. Any such inquests would have to be conducted by a High Court judge and the original decision subject to judicial review.
- Creating for the first time, a 'Charter for the Bereaved' that will ensure that minimum standards of care are given at every stage of the inquest process.
- Additional support for victims and vulnerable witnesses of crime through Investigation Anonymity Orders that will protect the identity of witnesses from the moment they contact the police so giving them confidence to come forward and giving them the support they need to testify in court.
- The creation of a new Sentencing Council (to supersede the existing Sentencing Guidelines Council) to better secure further consistency and transparency in sentencing without compromising the independence of the judiciary.
- A civil recovery scheme to help prevent criminals from profiting from books and other publications about their crimes.
Jack Straw continued:
'The new legislation proposed today builds on the government's efforts to ensure fairness throughout our society, including fairness in sentencing.
'The proposals for a new Sentencing Council seek to implement the unanimous and majority recommendations of the working party on Sentencing chaired by Lord Justice Gage. They will not impinge on the independence of the judiciary: the council itself will have a judicial majority. But once implemented they will help strengthen progress on consistency and transparency of sentencing and they will ensure that Parliament is better informed about the resource implications of any decisions it makes on new offences on new sentences.'
The Coroners and Justice Bill also contains measures to:
- extend the driving bans of offenders who are also given prison sentences to make them face the full consequences of the punishment for their crime
- extend Sentences for Public Protection to a greater number of offences - particularly those relating to terrorism
- give statutory authority to the principle that UK courts should be able to take account of a defendant's previous convictions - even where the conviction occurred overseas (in the European Union)
- extend existing powers that will allow legally-held knives that are surrendered on entry to a court to be retained indefinitely; laws surrounding illegally-held knives in court buildings remain unchanged
- strengthen inspection powers to improve public confidence in the way that personal data is held and used
- remove barriers, and strengthen safeguards, to effective data sharing to support improved public services and the fight against crime and terrorism
- create an accessible appeals system for bereaved families against coroners' decisions and a system of medical examiners to ensure independent scrutiny of death certificates
- ensure that bail in murder cases may be granted only where the court is satisfied that there is no significant risk of the defendant committing an offence whilst on bail which would cause injury to another person; in addition, decisions on granting bail in murder cases are limited to Crown Court judges
- reform the law on homicide to ensure those who kill out of anger face up to their crimes and the distress they have caused the families of their victims; the existing partial defence of provocation is too generous to those who kill in anger and poorly tailored to killings in response to fear
- extend the use of special measures in criminal proceedings (such as the use of live video links and screens around the witness box) so that vulnerable and intimidated witnesses can give their best evidence
- clarify the law so that there can be no doubt that encouraging someone to commit suicide online is illegal
- measures to prevent criminals from profiting from the publication of their memoirs.
Turning to the proposed reform of the coroners system, Jack Straw commented:
'Introducing a new Chief Coroner and new national standards as part of our reforms to the coroners system will benefit the families of the bereaved who use them. The Chief Coroner would also have the power to transfer an investigation from one area to another in order to prevent backlogs for both military and non-military inquests with regard being given to the views of the bereaved.
'In a very small number of cases, very real security concerns may mean that relatives cannot be told the exact circumstances in which their loved ones died. We want to ensure that this does not prevent an inquest from taking place.
'This Bill will make sure that sensitive information can be considered, even if it cannot be made public, and will mean that families, in these rare cases, can have absolute confidence in the coroner's verdict.'
Notes to editors
1. Copies of the documents are available at:
- Coroners and Justice Bill
- Murder, manslaughter and infanticide: proposals for reform of the law
- Making sure that crime doesn't pay
- Charter for bereaved people
- Sensitive reporting in coroners' courts
2. For further information or to request an interview with a minister, please contact the Ministry of Justice Newsdesk on 020 3334 3536.