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Coroners' reforms could be among casualties of £2bn cuts

16 August 2010

Long-overdue reforms to the system of coroners could become one of the casualties of the massive cuts facing the Ministry of Justice, it has emerged.

The Coroners and Justice Act 2009 introduces national standards for coroners, a new appeal process and the appointment of a chief coroner. The set-up costs are estimated at £6.4m.

The previous government delayed implementing the sections of the Act relating to coroners’ reforms until April 2012 and instead launched a consultation earlier this year, which closed last month.

The coalition government has launched a review of the changes and an announcement is expected in September.

Helen Shaw, co-director of INQUEST, said she was concerned that the government would either drop the reforms or attempt partial implementation.

“Not implementing the Act would be going against the will of Parliament,” she said. “The draft Bill was published in 2006 and since then there have been regular debates.

“It was not particularly contentious in terms of cross-party support and a lot of work was done at the MoJ on implementation.”

Shaw said many reforms in the Act related to procedure and were more about a new framework than wholesale change. The current law on coroners is governed by the Coroners Act 1988, which is based on Victorian legislation.

She said the new measures would make it easier for inquests to be transferred to different coroner areas, allowing cases to be heard more quickly where there were backlogs.

“The implementation costs are not a huge amount of money when compared to other parts of the MoJ budget,” Shaw said. “The hidden costs to families of not going ahead would be huge, whether it is in terms of their health, well-being or ability to work.”

She added that a consultation was expected on the separate issue of whether families should be entitled to legal aid in exceptional cases, a change promised by former justice secretary Jack Straw.

Meanwhile, in a letter leaked to the Public and Commercial Services Union and seen by Solicitors Journal, MoJ director general for finance Ann Beasley has suggested that £2bn will be lopped off the Ministry of Justice’s £9bn budget over the next two years, some of which will be achieved through redundancies.

While unable to provide details of the cuts, Beasley said the ministry was working towards achieving a 25 per cent cost reduction.

“Efficiencies alone will not be enough,” she said. “It will mean that we have to look at every opportunity to work differently and better. It will also mean there will have to be less of us.”

According to Beasley, more than £4bn of the department’s current budget is spent on staff costs. “We cannot streamline the organisation to work effectively and efficiently without considering staff numbers,” she continued.

How the cuts will be achieved is still to be worked out but Beasley said “many savings will have to be made quickly, within the first 12-24 months”.

She said the ‘corporate finance’ and ‘strategy and change’ teams would be working through the rest of the summer on more detailed proposals.

PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka commented: “This is the first indication of the true scale of the cuts being imposed upon departments by this coalition government, and it paints a devastating picture.

“It is clear that the civil service will simply not be able to cope. We will take every opportunity to remind the government and the public that there is an alternative and these politically-motivated cuts are entirely avoidable.”

The union fears that about 15,000 of the MoJ’s 80,000 staff could be at risk of losing their jobs, potentially bringing courts to a standstill.

A Ministry of Justice spokesman confirmed the Ministry of Justice has submitted proposals for savings to the Treasury.

“Like other departments we were asked to plan for savings of 25 per cent and 40 per cent as part of the coalition government’s deficit reduction plan,” he said.

“We are discussing options with the Treasury and will not provide a running commentary on the process. No decisions have been made. The outcome of the spending review will be announced on 20 October.”

The Supreme Court, which is part of the MoJ, was also invited to make cuts.

Talking to the press last month, the court’s chief executive Jenny Howe said they had set out a range of scenarios. “A 40 per cent budget reduction would jeopardise essential case work,” she said.

In a separate development, the Law Society is “urgently taking legal advice” on whether there are grounds for a judicial review of the LSC’s latest civil legal aid tender round.

In a letter to Carolyn Downs, interim chief executive of the LSC, Des Hudson, chief executive of the society, said that in east Cornwall only one law firm had been allocated all the family matter starts.

Hudson called on the LSC to suspend the tender process pending an urgent review.

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