Reporting inquests

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One of the most difficult tasks for a journalist is the coverage of an inquest. The proceedings are invariably upsetting to family and friends of the person concerned.

Our job is to report the coroner’s conclusion and the main points made at the hearing – which is a public examination of an unusual or unnatural death.

By their nature, hearings are formal and to a degree impersonal.

As often as we can, we speak to close relatives after the hearing and that enables us to personalise more effectively a story about someone’s death.

Sometimes relatives prefer not to speak to a reporter and we respect that.

But we are not able to agree to the occasional requests we receive not to publish a story at all.

Our reasoning is that inquests are judicial proceedings purposely held in public because it is right that people in general are told the reasons for an unusual or unexpected death.

It is beneficial though that people attending the inquest know that a story will appear. The coroner in Portsmouth makes a point of explaining that reporters are present and I think that is helpful.

Now this practice has been highlighted by the government in the new Charter for the Coroner Service. It says bereaved family members and witnesses should be made aware that the press may be present at the inquest.

The Newspaper Society suggested the advice, saying it would help to reduce the instances of distress of the bereaved as many people did not realise that the inquest or the evidence that they had given might be reported.

The Charter will be published this year and will set out uniform standards of service that bereaved family members can expect to receive from coroners’ services across the country, as well as ensuring that all coroners’ offices in England and Wales are aware of the standards that they should be meeting.

It will also clarify what someone can do if they wish to complain about the level of service received or the personal conduct of a coroner.

Any revised Charter produced on implementation of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009 will be included in the new guidance.