Government rejects independent verification of all death certificatesBMJ 2006; 332 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.332.7555.1409 (Published 15 June 2006) Cite this as: BMJ 2006;332:1409
Government rejects independent verification of all death certificates
Plans for a radical overhaul of the system of coroner’s courts in England and Wales have been announced by the government.
Harriet Harman, minister for constitutional affairs, said the Coroner Reform Bill would do away with the "postcode lottery" of the current system, in which many bereaved people were left feeling "like spectators."
Campaigners and doctors’ leaders welcomed the draft bill’s commitment to national standards, greater court powers, and dedicated medical advice for coroners.
They warned, however, that the plans might not be enough to protect the public from a repeat of cases such as the Harold Shipman killings.
The draft bill rejects some recommendations from Janet Smith’s official inquiry into the Shipman killings, including her call for all death certificates to be independently verified. As a result one lawyer representing the relatives of many of Shipman’s victims said the public was still at risk.
Ann Alexander, of the law firm Irwin Mitchell, said: "Shipman was a doctor who avoided the law whilst murdering his patients by exploiting all the loopholes in the current system. This bill will go a long way to close one of these loopholes, but others remain."
Under the proposals bereaved people would be able to ask for a second opinion on a death certificate, but there would be no routine independent verification.
Michael Wilks, chairman of the BMA’s committee on medical ethics, said he thought that the requirement for independent verification of all death certificates would have been logistically too difficult.
But he said he was concerned that there would not be enough money to fund the new plans. Unless the government adequately funded all its proposals then the reforms would not be enough "to protect the public from foul play or malpractice," he said.
He took issue with Ms Harman’s assertion that changes being introduced by the Department of Health would make up for any shortcomings in her draft bill’s ability to protect the public from rogue doctors: "It isn’t the GMC’s role to spot people like Shipman. So, for Harriet Harman to suggest that proposed changes to the GMC that Sir Liam Donaldson hasn’t even published will protect the public is not really relevant.
"The fact is that had systems that already existed when Harold Shipman was practising been properly funded and implemented then they would have spotted him."
Campaign groups largely welcomed the core of the proposals, which are designed to help bereaved people. Anne Viney, the chief executive of Cruse Bereavement Care, said she welcomed plans to give bereaved people clear legal standing in proceedings and for the introduction of national standards to be upheld by the new post of chief coroner.
Under the proposals coroners would be allowed to issue reporting restrictions on their court’s proceedings. And in the future all coroners would have to be qualified lawyers. Currently a small number are medically qualified with some additional legal training.
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