England and Wales finally get first chief coroner

BMJ 2012; 344 doi: (Published 25 May 2012) Cite this as: BMJ 2012;344:e3743
  1. Clare Dyer
  1. 1 BMJ

Peter Thornton, the Old Bailey judge who presided over the inquest into the death of the newspaper seller Ian Tomlinson during the G20 protests in 2009,1 will become the first chief coroner for England and Wales next September.

Thornton was appointed to the post by the lord chief justice in 2010 but had not taken up his duties when the newly elected coalition government proposed to scrap the role in its cost cutting “bonfire of the quangos.” However, campaigning groups persuaded it to relent.

Announcing the U turn last November, the justice secretary, Kenneth Clarke, said that he was prepared to have “one last try” to meet the arguments from organisations such as the Royal British Legion, which protested over lengthy delays in holding inquests into soldiers’ deaths abroad, by appointing a chief coroner.

The new post is the culmination of long drawn out attempts to reform the ancient coroners’ system, which critics say operates as a postcode lottery because of its local jurisdiction and the wide powers resting with individual coroners. The previous Labour government originally proposed far reaching reforms, but they were substantially watered down before the Coroners and Justice Act 2009 was enacted.

Thornton’s appointment was welcomed by the Royal British Legion and by the charity Inquest, which represents bereaved relatives. Inquest said, “Each year tens of thousands of bereaved families grappling with the inquest process are forced to endure lengthy delays and an archaic, unaccountable system. These failures also leave the coronial service unable to fulfil its vital function of preventing unnecessary deaths.”

The justice minister Jonathan Djanogly said, “As chief coroner, his honour Judge Thornton will, for the first time, be responsible for providing national leadership to coroners in England and Wales. He will also play a key role in setting new national standards and developing a new statutory framework for coroners, including rules and regulations, as well as guidance and practice directions, within which coroners will operate. This will help to bring about much greater consistency of practice between coroner areas and improved services to the bereaved.”

Thornton, a circuit judge at the Old Bailey since 2007, described the coroners’ system as “of vital importance, both in identifying causes of death and preventing future deaths.” He added: “I will aim to provide quality and uniformity, with a national consistency of approach and standards between coroner areas.

“Openness, inclusiveness, thoroughness, and fairness must be at the heart of this process if it is to be effective and serve the needs of the public.”


Cite this as: BMJ 2012;344:e3743


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