County to investigate investing in mortuary and inquest facilities

PUBLISHED: 11:08 04 September 2020 | UPDATED: 14:37 04 September 2020

Coroner David Heming and his office at Huntingdon. Coroners are required by law to investigate any sudden or unexplained death. They are independent of both local and central government and are required to act in accordance with laid down rules and procedures. Picture: CAMBS COUNTY COUNCIL

Coroner David Heming and his office at Huntingdon. Coroners are required by law to investigate any sudden or unexplained death. They are independent of both local and central government and are required to act in accordance with laid down rules and procedures. Picture: CAMBS COUNTY COUNCIL

Archant

Work will begin to assess the viability of Cambridgeshire acquiring its own mortuary, pathology and inquest facilities as costs and outstanding cases rise in the coroner system.

Cambridgeshire County Council and Peterborough City Council currently fund the service with a 65/35 split of the budget.

Councillors at the county council’s communities and partnership committee voted on Thursday (September 3) to explore the possibility of investing in its own mortuary and pathology and inquest facilities, rather than its current method of renting the services.

A report to the committee says: “As time progresses, the clear case to explore this option becomes more compelling as the service continues to incur costs effectively renting all of these services and spaces with little control over them.”

A council report on the county’s coroner service says there is a “somewhat unique complexity” to the cases in the region, owing to “exceptionally complex hospital deaths” associated with specialist hospitals in the area and three prisons, where the coroner normally holds an inquest for all deaths.

Work will now begin on a business case to assess the viability of investing in dedicated facilities, which “remains a long-term goal”.

Assistant director of regulatory services at Cambridgeshire County Council, Peter Gell, told the committee the facility could “pay for itself potentially over a number of years and then end up bringing funds into the service”.

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The county’s coroner service has a growing backlog of cases still outstanding after 12 months. The annual report from this time last year said the service had 86 cases still open after 12 months, which is said was “significantly higher than many coronial areas”.

The council said then that it would invest further funding to “deal with the backlog”.

The number of such outstanding cases rose to 113 this year. The council’s annual report said “14 mentioned Covid-19 as a reason for the delay. That therefore leaves 99 cases as at the end of April 2020 which were over a year old and not related to Covid-19”.

The county council overspent by £430,000 on the service in the last financial year, which it said was “due to the increasing complexity of cases being referred to the coroner and the additional staffing required to handle them”.

Collectively the budget from both councils was increased by £527,000 for the year 2020/21.

The committee heard a number of updates on the improvements made to the service to try and deal with the issues and to respond to the Covid-19 crisis.

Chairman of the committee, councillor Steve Criswell, welcomed the additional funding and increased capacity. Addressing updates on meeting targets across the service, he said: “Targets are very important and we should absolutely be as efficient as possible, but we must not lose sight of the fact that we also want to provide the best possible service to bereaved families and anything that helps that is very much to be welcomed.”

He added: “We have a statutory duty to deal with all cases that are referred to us.”


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