To receive a presentation from Andrew Hetherington, Senior Coroner and Karen Lounton, Service Manager (attached as APPENDIX D).
Members were updated on the County Hall refurbishment works for the coroner’s service and some of the pending service changes. Members also recivied an update on the work of the death management group. The presentation was delivered by Andrew Hetherington, Senior Coroner, and Karen Lounton, Coroner Service Manager, Report attached as Appendix D.
The Committee received a brief explanation of the role of the senior coroner and the coroner service. The Coroner’s service is a county of treasure and had concluded 3 out of 14 inquests already this year.
Andrew Hetherington was appointed as Senior Coroner in October 2020 following the retirement of Tony Brown. Northumberland was currently split into two Coroner jurisdictions: North and South but will be come one later in 2021. The service and it’s staff had recently moved to County Hall next to the registers office. Administrative staff had previously been split between a site in Berwick and a site in North Tyneside and, Coroner’s Officers working from Ashington Police Station.
Member’s were told that as part of the County Hall refurbishment programme a business case was made for the Coroner Service and its staff to be centralised and located in a more accessible location to families, officers and professional who were required to attend an inquest. Work was completed on the new court and accommodation in October 2020 with the first inquest being held in November 2020. Hearings were currently listed ahead until September 2021. An offer was extended to the Committee to visit the new court when safe to do so.
Member’s were shown a series of photographs of the new Coroner’s court and the new waiting room, meeting space, family room and jury room. The Coroner’s court is a flexible space with movable walls which allows the room to be expanded or shrunk to allow for a more versatile workspace. The Court and private family room had been designed with bereaved families at the heart of it and aimed to help put people attending court at ease. The jury room could be repurposed as a second court to deal with backlog if needed.
With regards to the continued modernisation of the Coroner’s Service, COVID-19 had created provisions for hearings to be conducted remotely. This had allowed the Service to conduct an inquest with a family in Hong Kong and New Zealand. The Service was working towards a paper lite court and developing its IT provisions. A website was under development. The service was also working closely with key stakeholder such as Northumbria Healthcare, Northumbria Police and Funeral Directors.
The Coroner’s Service in Northumberland was working with colleagues as part of the General Register Office. This work is part of a central government agenda to look at digital transformation in relation to death investigation and registration.
The service had recently recruited a First Officer and was looking to recruit at least 3 Assistant Coroners with Newcastle City Council to help with North of Tyne coronial resilience.
The Committee were then updated on the work of the Death Management Group (DMG). The DMG was established under the LRF in March 2020 as part of the regional COVID-19 response and reports to the TCG and SCG to co-ordinate the management of excess deaths at a multi-agency level. The DMG was made up of representatives from the LA6, coroner, NHS, funeral directors, emergency services.
The DMG regularly reviewed the death management plan and work had been done to understand death trends and to provide an educated look ahead at future pressures. A RAG rating system had been established to identify trigger points in relation to death registration, mortuary capacity, body storage and, cremation and burial. The DMG had established a Pandemic Multi Agency Response Team to help transport bodies across the region; thankfully, this team had not been deployed. Mortuary capacity in Northumberland was regally reviewed and arrangements for excess deaths had been put in place across the LA6 footprint. Capacity over the previous few months had been consistent at around 30-50%.
Members were shown death data from the last 5 years. This data showed the number of recorded deaths had been higher than normal over the last year but during the summer of 2020, death registrations had been lower than 19/20. The date showed the increase in deaths following the 2020 Christmas period. The Committee were informed that there had been 404 registrations in February 2021.
Member’s welcomed the new court and received the following answers to questions:
• The rooms could be booked out and were designed in such a way that the space was multifunctional. The court could be split into two rooms and was designed to limit any noise interference between courts.
• A question was asked regarding non-invasive post-mortems to which the Committee were told there were limitations to non-invasive post-mortems but with advances in technology they have become more reliable. There are procedures in place to support faith groups. The Service is working closely with Northumbria Healthcare to develop a solution.
• The design of the court was well received with Member’s believing the design would help put families at ease and was a welcomed change from the intimidating setting of a traditional magistrate’s court. The Coroner’s Service was driven to meet the needs of Northumberland families. The service was working with Coroner’s Court Support Service, a charity of trained volunteers who work with families to help them through the inquest day. The Service had received positive feedback from families about their experiences and the court.
Karen Lounton and Andrew Hetherington were thanked for their report and it was RESOLVED that the report be noted.