Coroners bill unveiled to address Shipman flaws

A radical shake-up of the coroners system has been announced today to address the failures highlighted in the Shipman murders.

Harold Shipman killed more than 200 patients over the course of his career as a GP, and the report into the murders identified the way deaths are investigated as one of the key reasons why he got away with it for so long.

However, while today’s coroner reform bill incorporates many of the recommendations made by Dame Janet Smith’s inquiry, including a new role for the bereaved in the coroners system, it has failed to include a new requirement for all deaths to be probed.

In her report, Dame Janet said the coroners service should investigate all deaths “to an appropriate degree”, which may in many cases required little more than a confirmation of basic facts, but which would ensure proper scrutiny.

Just two of the patients who died at the hands of Dr Shipman were investigated by a coroner, and Dame Janet said it was “not acceptable” that it was up to the doctor who declared someone dead to decide whether that case was referred for inquiry.

Ann Alexander, the solicitor who represented Dr Shipman’s victims, said today’s bill went some way to address the problems raised in his case but warned loopholes still remained.

“These reforms are long overdue, but is only part of the reforms needed to ensure that another Shipman cannot be allowed to happen,” she said.

She added: “On behalf of the families, who fought long and hard for a public inquiry into the Shipman tragedy, I am calling on the government to implement all the reforms recommended by the Shipman inquiry.”

However, constitutional affairs minister Harriet Harman insisted a new legal status for the bereaved in coroner process would help address the problems raised by Dame Janet.

For example, relatives and friends of the deceased would be able to call for a second opinion on a death certificate from the coroner and demand that they will look into it.

In addition, Ms Harman said the bill would ensure “proper standards” in the profession – the 111 or so part-time coroners will be replaced with half as many full-time coroners, who will have new medical expertise to draw upon, and new powers to demand evidence.

The creation of a post of chief coroner and an advisory council would also ensure better leadership for the whole profession, as Dame Janet recommended, and provide someone to whom the bereaved could appeal if they did not agree with the coroners’ decision.

“There are many coroners and coroners’ officers dedicated to their work, but the system in which they work must be improved,” Ms Harman said.

“This new law will ensure that the public interest is served by proper enquiries into deaths and the bereaved get the answers they need.”