Troops inquest backlog continues to grow

#1
DAILY MAIL
Slur on British 'Iraq and Afghan' troop heroes as inquest backlog just keeps on growing

By MATTHEW HICKLEY - More by this author »

Last updated 30th October 2007

The backlog of inquests on British troops killed in Iraq and Afghanistan is still growing, the Government admitted yesterday.

A total of 253 servicemen and women have died on operations since 2001 but almost half their families are still waiting for inquests.

For many it will be years before they learn the full facts about how their loved ones died.

The latest figures from the Ministry of Justice reveal that 126 cases are stuck in the legal process - meaning the backlog has risen sharply from 86 last May when ministers first conceded there was a serious problem and promised increased funding.

A total of 253 servicemen and women have died in operations since 2001

Although extra coroners and staff have been appointed, officials admit that the sheer number of troops being killed means they are unable to keep up with the demand for proper investigations and legal hearings.

The delay in providing proper answers for bereaved families was one of the issues highlighted in the Royal British Legion's "Broken Covenant" campaign, aiming to improve the treatment of the armed forces in the UK.

Some families have had to wait more than four years for inquests.

The oldest case currently being heard dates from 2004.

Huge delays built up after the 2003 invasion of Iraq because the bodies of all military fatalities were flown into RAF Brize Norton in Oxfordshire, meaning responsibility for inquests lay with the local coroner.

With inquiries and hearings taking weeks or months in each case, the system was swamped.

The Home Office and Ministry of Defence spent months arguing over who should provide extra cash to speed it up.

It was only after a public outcry that ministers made more money available.

Three extra coroners were appointed to tackle the Oxford backlog last year and around £120,000 has been spent hiring more staff.

Other measures aimed at cutting the backlog include flying bodies home to RAF Lyneham in Wiltshire, shifting the burden to a new area.

More cases are also being sent to coroners in soldiers' home towns.

But the rapidly-mounting death toll from intense fighting in Afghanistan and bomb attacks in Iraq, has meant the Government's efforts have not been enough.

An official statement from junior Justice Minister Bridget Prentice yesterday avoided any mention of the backlog, but the ministry confirmed that 126 deaths out of 253 had not yet been dealt with.

A spokesman said: "We have taken serious steps to tackle the backlog in Oxfordshire and prevent a similar backlog building up in Wiltshire.

"Subject to events, we're hopeful that the backlog will now start to come down."

At one Oxford inquest earlier this year coroner Sir Richard Curtis apologised to families left in a legal limbo and described the delays as "terrible" and "quite, quite unacceptable".

Inquest hearings have proved vital for many families, giving them the only chance to force officials at the Defence Ministry or the Pentagon in Washington to provide information.

Sue Freeth, director of welfare at the Royal British Legion, said: "The further promised resources do not seem to have had an effect as yet.

"As part of our Honour the Covenant campaign, the Legion called for independent legal advice, representation and advocacy for all families, at public expense.

"So far we have heard nothing further from the Government on this.

"The lack of support for bereaved families must only compound their distress, particularly at this time of national remembrance."

Shadow Defence Secretary Liam Fox said: "Despite Government promises to prevent a build-up, we now have the highest backlog ever.

"It is clear there is still a shortfall in resources to cope with the rate at which we are losing service personnel. Ministers must deliver on their promises to get this sorted."

The long wait

Flight Sergeant Bob O' Connor: The inquest will open more than three years after his RAF Hercules was shot down
By the time an inquest opens on Flight Sergeant Bob O'Connor and nine other servicemen, it will be more than three years since their RAF Hercules was shot down in Iraq.

The need for a military inquiry, and secrecy concerns about RAF technology, mean a hearing cannot start until next year.
The transport plane came down in January 2005 after gunfire pierced a fuel tank, which exploded and blew off a wing.

It was the biggest single loss of British lives in the conflict.

The families want to know if the plane was fitted with flame-retardant foam to protect the tanks, and how much the pilots and navigators were told about the dangerous area they were crossing.

There is confusion about what is causing the delay.

Coroner David Masters says Defence Ministry officials are still checking witness interviews and crash reports to decide what to block under the Official Secrets Act. The ministry claims the coroner is still reading the reports of its board of inquiry.
 
#2
Yet another platitude will come out from ministers I have no doubt. It reminds me of the old saying where there is a will there is a way. The way is more money and resources and this will not be forthcoming. Platitudes are cheaper.
 
#3
Why aren't the inquests done in the Town of the registered next of kin? It is clear that the current system is failing and causing even more needless trauma and emotional suffering to the bereaved.

Is it because the government is using control and spin to limit the damage to them that fair and proper inquests would bring?
 
#4
It is now 26 months since my son died. It is not the Coroner holding the Inquest up, it is the MOD, while they pontificate over the Board of Inquiry Report.
 
#5
I'm truly sorry to hear of your loss. Nothing any of us could say on here would be adequate.

We do however share your feelings regarding the MOD. I usually consider civilian interference in operational matters to be unwise. When it comes to inquests however, we have a moral responsibility to ensure that inquests are dealt with in as speedy a manner as possible.

I have no doubt that the grieving process is made much much worse by the current shameful state of affairs.

My heart goes out to all of the next of kin.
 
#6
Can I just ask and it may bring some flak my way but I have to ask!!! Im sure one or two arrsers also want to ask but wont..anyway


How many inquests have thier been for all the lads who have been killed in NI? Anyone know?

Or

How many inquests have thier been for the lads who have been killed on ops since WW2

Before the wobbly heads shout "whats your point"...my point is, why so many inquests??, its awful that eveyone concerned has been killed, thats not in question...but the volume of inquests concerned?? Is this the real point of the blame culture we live in??

Is it because its an overwhelming view that Iraq and Afganistan are not 'popular' operations? What about all the others before this?

Im not after a bite here, and I feel for every family who have been affected by a loss..but Im just trying to get my head round all this

Here is a Hansard question to the very same:

Inquests
Mr. Salmond: To ask the Secretary of State for Defence how many inquests remain to be heard in relation to members of Her Majesty's armed forces who lost their lives as a result of military duties in Iraq (a) since 2003 in total, (b) in 2004 and (c) in 2005; and in how many cases an inquest has not been concluded a year after death.

Mr. Ingram [holding answer 8 December 2005]: Since 2003 a total of 98 British personnel have lost their lives in support of Operation Telic with 70 inquests still outstanding.

In 2004, 22 British Military personnel lost their lives with 15 inquests still outstanding

As at 7 December 2005, 23 British Military personnel have died during 2005; all inquests remain outstanding.

13 Dec 2005 : Column 1878W

A total of 65 inquests have not been concluded a year after death.

The Coroner is under remit to conduct an independent inquest into reported deaths of a violent, natural or unknown cause, including those of military personnel. The Ministry of Defence continues to assist the Coroner as necessary.
 
#7
The inquests have to take place in Oxford, as the point of entry for all fallen servicemen is BZN.

What compounded the issue was the fact that the Oxfordshire Coroner and Assistant Coroner both resigned because of stress - the workload became incredible. Think how many deaths they would have to investigate during a 'normal' year.

Having attended an inquest last month, it is my understanding that there is only the Deputy Assistant Coroner dealing with these cases at the moment, which is clearly not good enough.

My experience also points, alas, to the MOD as the cause of the delay. It takes months and months for the evidence to be released to the families and what they do get is far from satisfactory.

I cannot see this improving in the short term - but that is unacceptable to the families, and rightly so.

CH
 
#8
This uncaring rule that inquests must be held at the point of entry is ridiculous and places yet more unnecessary and avoidable stress on the NOK.

The current position is untenable and MUST be changed.
 
#9
I have just read some information today that the Coroners have power to transfer jurisdiction to another Coroner nearer to the next of kin where possible, and this has apparently been happening for some time.
 

oldbaldy

LE
Moderator
#10
This might help:

THE move to speed up inquests into the death of service personnel overseas could result in a Scottish military base being designated as part of England.

It is understood that Kenny MacAskill, the Justice Secretary, is examining measures which would allow inquests to be held north of the Border.
Standard Life Seminar

Under current law, all military deaths abroad must be examined by an English coroner. The new proposal would give English jurisdiction over a small part of a Scottish site - such as RAF Kinloss.

It is hoped the planned move would reduce lengthy waiting times for inquests and remove the burden of families having to travel south of the Border to hear how their relatives died.

The inquest into the death of Fusilier Gordon Gentle, 19, from Glasgow, opened earlier this week in Oxford. The hearing finally got under way three years after the soldier was killed by a roadside bomb in Iraq.

Although the proposal has privately caused raised eyebrows amongst some SNP politicians, senior MSPs believe that the feelings of bereaved relatives must take priority.

Keith Brown, a former Royal Marine who served in the Falklands is now the SNP MSP for Ochil.

He told BBC Scotland it was "extremely important" for inquests to be held north of the Border.

Mr Brown added: "If you are a family from Scotland and you have had somebody killed overseas, you have to first of all travel down to England in order to attend the inquest and also you have to suffer the long delay after the death has occurred - that can't be right."

However, he described the prospect of English law having jurisdiction over a small part of Scotland as "odd".
http://news.scotsman.com/scotland.cfm?id=1746422007
 
#11
I'm sure the inquest into the Nimrod fatalities were held in Scotland, as most of those boys were from RAF Kinloss and their bodies were flown into that airhead.
 

oldbaldy

LE
Moderator
#12
ChickenHeart said:
I'm sure the inquest into the Nimrod fatalities were held in Scotland, as most of those boys were from RAF Kinloss and their bodies were flown into that airhead.
Not so I'm afraid. The agreement was that although the bodies were flown into Kinross the Inquest would be held in Oxforshire with all the others.
One slight problem is that Scotland do not have an Inquest in the English sense but a Fatal Accident Inquiry:
A Fatal Accident Inquiry (FAI) is a statutory public inquiry into the circumstances of a death. The Procurator Fiscal can apply to the Sheriff Court to hold a FAI once the investigation of the death is complete.

The Procurator Fiscal must hold a FAI when a death was caused during employment, or while in legal custody,
i.e. while being held at a police station or prison.

In other circumstances, the Procurator Fiscal can hold a FAI where there are issues of public safety or matters of general public concern arising from a death and there is a need to highlight hazardous or dangerous circumstances or systems that have caused or contributed to it.

At the end of a FAI, a Sheriff makes a determination. The determination will set out:

where and when the death occurred;

*

the cause of death;
*

any precautions by which the death might have been avoided; and
*

any defects in systems that caused or contributed to the death.

A FAI cannot make any findings of fault/blame against individuals.
http://www.crownoffice.gov.uk/About/roles/pf-role/investigation-deaths/fatal-accident

The MOD do not like FAIs, remember the stink when the FAI into the Kintyre Chinook accident was at odds with the MOD Board of Inquiry.
 
#13
So does anyone know just what the government is doing at the moment to speed these inquests up? I suppose it will just be platitudes they are cheaper.
 
#14
Today's Scotsman, LINK

Fri 2 Nov 2007
Scottish military base may become part of England

NICK JURY

THE move to speed up inquests into the death of service personnel overseas could result in a Scottish military base being designated as part of England.

It is understood that Kenny MacAskill, the Justice Secretary, is examining measures which would allow inquests to be held north of the Border.
Inside Track

Under current law, all military deaths abroad must be examined by an English coroner. The new proposal would give English jurisdiction over a small part of a Scottish site - such as RAF Kinloss.

It is hoped the planned move would reduce lengthy waiting times for inquests and remove the burden of families having to travel south of the Border to hear how their relatives died.

The inquest into the death of Fusilier Gordon Gentle, 19, from Glasgow, opened earlier this week in Oxford. The hearing finally got under way three years after the soldier was killed by a roadside bomb in Iraq.

Although the proposal has privately caused raised eyebrows amongst some SNP politicians, senior MSPs believe that the feelings of bereaved relatives must take priority. ...
 

oldbaldy

LE
Moderator
#15
I posted that just above Hackle. It would interesting to know if they are taking about an English inquest taking place in Scotland or a Scottish FAI.
 
#16
emptyeye said:
Can I just ask and it may bring some flak my way but I have to ask!!! Im sure one or two arrsers also want to ask but wont..anyway


How many inquests have thier been for all the lads who have been killed in NI? Anyone know?

Or

How many inquests have thier been for the lads who have been killed on ops since WW2

Before the wobbly heads shout "whats your point"...my point is, why so many inquests??, its awful that eveyone concerned has been killed, thats not in question...but the volume of inquests concerned?? Is this the real point of the blame culture we live in??

Is it because its an overwhelming view that Iraq and Afganistan are not 'popular' operations? What about all the others before this?

Im not after a bite here, and I feel for every family who have been affected by a loss..but Im just trying to get my head round all this
The role of a coroner is to find the medical causes of sudden and unexpected, unnatural, violent or suspicious deaths, not to apportion blame.
However thats not always been the case.
The office of the Coroner dates back to 1174, the time of William the Conqueror and the Norman Invasion of Britain. In the 12th century each county in England and Wales appointed a Coroner to protect the rights of the Crown. Their role concerned dealing with all violent and unexplained deaths, as the revenue gained through fines, and confiscation of the guilty individual's goods, all filled the crown's coffers.
Nowadays the police do the blame bit and the Coroner finds the cause, so the answer to your earlier question is , Yes, all deaths in NI and since the war falling into the categories of sudden and unexpected, unnatural, violent or suspicious deaths will have had an investigation, not necessarily an inquest.
The Coroners Officer will conduct the investigation into the death and pass on the results to the Coroner who will decide if the explanation is acceptable, if not he will order an inquest. Occasionally should there be a public interest then an inquest may be held even though the Coroner is satisfied as to the cause of death.

Apart from the fact of the law saying that deaths will be investigated at the point of entry, which could be changed at the stroke of a ministers pen,I would suspect that some of the backlog problem is possibly that the coroners at the home towns do not want the expense and hassle that such deaths bring.
 
#17
oldbaldy said:
I posted that just above Hackle. It would interesting to know if they are taking about an English inquest taking place in Scotland or a Scottish FAI.
The article seems to imply English inquests taking place in Scotland. It does seem quite a bizarre idea, although I would support anything which makes things easier for bereaved service families.

On the basis of the Scotsman report, I read it that repatriations could take place direct into (say) RAF Kinloss where the remains would be accepted into the jurisdiction of an English coroner before being released to the families. Same procedures as currently take place at Lyneham. Ultimately the coroner would conduct the inquest at, I assume, the same airbase.

There is no point in any of this if the inquest cannot be held North of the Border. Although in some cases, it may suit the families if the inquest took place in England. This might apply where the deceased had been stationed North of the Border but the family intend to move back to England. Sadly, multiple inquests present another complication.

If it was simply a case of bringing the remains into English jurisdiction before being taken to a Scottish airbase, the aircraft could simply stage through RAF Brize Norton (or currently RAF Lyneham), as has happened already.

You might well ask, why cannot a FAI be held in Scotland? The main reason might lie in the fact that the Scottish system may not have the same provision as now applies in England for the coroner to take jurisdiction over remains arriving from overseas. However, Scots Law prides itself on adaptability and it seems surprising that no way has been found round that problem.

For RAF Kinloss, responsibility for initiating an FAI would lie with the Procurator Fiscal in Elgin, and the FAI would be presided over by a Sheriff within the Sheriffdom of Grampian, Highlands and Islands.

This is a sensitive and difficult matter and we look forward to a swift solution which gives high priority to the needs of bereaved service families.

D.Y. (BAFF)
 
#18
Both the present and the previous Scottish governments have been not only willing but keen to where appropriate take some of the load of the English coroners, but the stumblimg blocks are in Westminster and Whitehall. FAIs can be far more critical of organisations in their findings as seen in a recent case over a child who died from meningitis. NHS 24 was cricised severely. One feels the MOD is perhaps unwilling to subject itself to this scrutiny. Equally the cynic in me would suggest that in reality delaying these inquests could actually suit the government as they can easily claim that any past failing is now resolved and lessons have already been learnt, not quite so much rubbing of noses on dog poo.

The crying shame is this problem could have been resolved if the government and MOD wanted to resolve it.
 
#19
One of the main reasons for the delay in Inquests is due to the degree of self-censorship and time taken by the MoD in sorting the evidence. MoD Lawyers get to see all the evidence ahead of time then over weeks and months classify it. They also decide how much of it the public is allowed to see. Not only is this contributing hugely to delays it is also giving an enormous advantage to MoD lawyers when the Inquest eventually begins.

Let's hope the Scots led by Alex Salmond can cut through the Krap.
 
#20
one problem is the complete and utter lack of understanding about the military, its structures and procedures. Basically, before the coroner can begin to understand the details of a case, they need to understand the context. This means that they find it difficult to understand the difference between the concept of a div HQ and a Bde HQ, the difference between a BG HQ and a Sqn/Coy HQ and therefore the way in which the chain of command interacts between all of the above. They have no concept of the staff branches (eg N3, G3, A3, J3, J1, J4, J6, etc) and so even straightforward job descriptions become points for clarification.

Perhaps it is better to let one or two coroners shoulder the burden in order to allow them to retain such 'specialist knowledge'. If the individual cases were sent to NOK home towns, this learning curve occurs every time. This difficulty in understanding the way in which the military operates may lead to the wrong conclusions being drawn, or the wrong emphasis being placed on events/personnel.

I have certainly seen it result in personnel with limited specialist technical knowledge asked to give their opinions about things they had no reason to be aware of, but then their answers are taken as gospel and undermine any subsequent evidence that contradicts them, even if given by more knowlegeable witnesses. Barristers pick up on this and spin up their arguments in the grey areas created by the lack of understanding. Although they may feel that they have 'scored points', ultimately they do not add clarity and so in reality do not serve the coroner's or the families' search for understanding.

This issue is not as easy as it may first appear, but the bottom line is that like so many of the issues raised by the RBL Broken Covenant campaign (eg housing) this does not require technical breakthroughs or innovative methods, just proper funding and political will.
 

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