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R (Sacker) v West Yorkshire Coroner, House of Lords, 11 March 2004

18 March 2004
The issues

Coroner – State’s duty to investigate death – Human Rights Act 1982 Article 2.

The facts

The mother of the deceased, Helen Sacker applied for permission to proceed with her claim for a judicial review of the Coroner’s refusal to leave to the Inquest Jury the issue of whether her daughter’s suicide while on remand in prison was contributed to by neglect. The Claimant alleged that the Prison Authorities knew that she was a suicide risk but failed to take any preventative measures. At the Inquest, the Coroner had directed the Jury to identify only the issues of who the deceased was and how, when and where she came by her death and that they were not to frame their verdict so as to appear to decide any question of criminal liability or civil liability. The Coroner further stated that under Rule 43 Coroner’s Rules, he would report certain matters relating to the way in which the deceased had been treated in Prison to the appropriate authorities. The Court of Appeal had allowed the Appeal by the deceased’s mother. The West Yorkshire Coroner appealed against that decision to the House of Lords.

The decision

Following the decision in Middleton, the word “how” in Section 11 of the Coroner’s Act 1988 should be given and Rule 36(i)(b) of the Coroner’s Rules 1984 should be given a broader meaning “by what means and in what circumstances”. The consequence was that the Coroner would be able to exercise his discretion. The Coroner here exercised his discretion in the way indicated in the Middleton case. The Inquest had been deprived of its ability to address the positive obligation that Article 2 of the convention placed on steps to take effective operational measures to safeguard life. The appropriate course was to order a new Inquest.

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