New Coroner’s Guidelines on Second Post Mortems

RoadPeace members bereaved by road crashes campaign successfully to end the ‘awful suffering’ caused by second post-mortems

 

  • Lucy Harrison and Elaine Gordon both had siblings killed in road crashes. They had to wait weeks to bury their loved ones because the defendants called for second post-mortems. 

 

  • From 2017 they have been campaigning to find out why defendants are allowed to ask for a second post-mortem  

 

  • New guidelines issued by the Chief Coroner confirm that defendants do not have an automatic right to a second post-mortem

 

  • The pair have released a statement on their experience

 

RoadPeace members, Lucy Harrison and Elaine Gordon have successfully campaigned for new guidance on post-mortems. Each had their sibling killed in a road crash, and their grief was compounded by weeks of waiting for second post-mortems to be completed. 

 

The pair were driven to find the answer to this question: Why were defendants allowed to ask for a second post-mortem, when the first had proved conclusive? Especially given the pain that is inflicted on bereaved families who have to wait to lay their loved ones to rest. 

 

Campaigning on the issue since 2017, all of their work has paid off with new guidelines issued by the Chief Coroner on 23rd September – confirming that defendants do not have an automatic right to a second post-mortem.

 

Nick Simmons, RoadPeace CEO, said “We are so proud of what Lucy and Elaine have achieved. Families who have been through the worst thing imaginable – losing a loved one – then have to suffer even more as they wait for the body to be returned to them. Lucy and Elaine have spared so many from this additional trauma. We wish that they never had to live through the experiences that have led them to campaign on the issue, but are immensely grateful for all they have done.”

 

 Lucy and Elaine have issued a statement on the campaign:

 

On Monday 23rd September 2019, the Chief Coroner for England and Wales, released his new guidance on post-mortems.  This is the first such guidance in 20 years, and something we have campaigned for over the last two and a half years of our lives.

 

In 2014, we both lost our siblings (Gina Johnson and Peter Price) in road traffic incidents, caused by speeding, hit and run drivers. Our losses were devastating and painful – but were then made even worse as our families were put through additional suffering. Our siblings’ bodies were retained for 6-8 weeks, whilst the defendants considered whether to have a second post-mortem. In Gina’s case, the second post-mortem was cancelled and re-arranged before being performed. In Peter’s case, the second post-mortem did not take place, but the defendant still took weeks to consider it.

 

A second post-mortem was something we had never heard of before, and both of our families were utterly horrified. It felt as though Gina and Peter were treated as pieces of evidence; the idea that they were much loved human beings who deserved dignity in death seemed to have been forgotten. When we tried to challenge this practice, both of our families were told this was the law, and if we prevented the defendant’s right to the second post-mortem, we would harm the chance of getting justice in any court case. Not knowing when we could lay our siblings’ bodies to rest was incredibly difficult to deal with.

 

In 2016, we met each other at the first RoadPeace support group to be held in Birmingham, and realised how similar our losses were, and that we had a shared sense of anger regarding the way in which Gina and Peter had been treated after their deaths. We also had an overwhelming desire to stop any other family from having to go through this experience. However, we were both early on in our grief and struggling to cope; so, it took a while before we felt able to take any action.

In 2017, we began writing to our MP’s, who wrote to the then Parliamentary under Secretary of State for Justice. We both received letters back saying that the defendant had a legal right to a second post-mortem, and that this system worked well. This response did not satisfy us, so we decided to speak with the police. They to, thought this system was the law, and they were wary that any challenge to it would harm a court case. We then decided to write to every coroner in England and Wales. We wanted to find out why families were having to wait such a long time to have their loved ones back and why the defendant had a right to a second post-mortem, when one had already been completed. The responses we received varied – there was total discrepancy across the country and confusion as to what the law was. We then decided to write to some Home Office pathologists, and we were granted a meeting with Professor Guy Rutty. Professor Rutty told us that in fact, the defendant did not have an automatic right to a second post-mortem and that in Leicester CT scanning was being utilised to negate the need to retain a body for more than 48 hours. We felt that this system was kinder and more sensitive, giving greater consideration to the bereaved family. With this information we were determined to fight on.

 

We wrote again to our MP’s, who continued to support us. We then wrote to the Chief Coroner and to Baroness Newlove who was then the Victims’ Commissioner. Baroness Newlove organised a meeting between us and the Chief Coroner. Once we knew we had this meeting in place we began write to as many people as we could think of – religious representatives, other charities and medical bodies. We began to compile our letters and research into a booklet – we wanted to present as much evidence as possible to show that this system was not only unnecessary but that it caused additional trauma to the bereaved. We also began a blog, explaining what had happened to Gina and Peter (www.dignityforthedeceased.wordpress.com).

 

In June 2018, we met with the Chief Coroner and he confirmed that the defendant did not have an automatic legal right to a second post-mortem and that with any such procedure coroners would need to “realistically consider what benefits can be gained”.  He listened to our concerns and at our request, agreed to issue a new guidance clarifying the law and containing a section specific to road traffic deaths.  While we were waiting for the new guidance to be published, we became involved in campaigning for a CT scanner to be used in Birmingham, and this is now being trialled.

Now that the new guidance has been released, we are pleased that it does indeed confirm that the defendant does not have an automatic right to a second post-mortem, that CT scanning should be considered where available, and that strong justification will be needed for any second post-mortem; this will no longer be standard practice.  The new guidance also refers to Peter and Gina and the work that we have done in memory of them, which for us means so much.  Peter and Gina were both encouraging and amazing individuals, who were taken from us far too soon – it gives us some comfort that their legacy is to stop other families from experiencing this suffering. We are so grateful to the Chief Coroner and his team, for the work they have put into this guidance.

We would like to say a sincere thank you to our families and friends – who have supported and walked alongside us in this fight, and who have encouraged and believed in us.  We must also thank Preet Kaur Gill MP, Rachel Maclean MP, Richard Burden MP and Councillor Sharon Thompson – all of whom we have found to be committed in helping spare those bereaved through road traffic incidents, further pain. We also thank Baroness Helen Newlove – a true inspiration.  We will also be forever grateful to Professor Guy Rutty, who took the time to talk us and encouraged us in our fight for change.

 

We owe a huge thank you to RoadPeace – who are the reason we found each other.  We would like to give special mention to Jane Evans and Amy Aeron-Thomas. Jane is our local group facilitator, and a remarkable lady – without Jane, RoadPeace would never have had a group in the West Midlands, and we would never have started on this journey.  Amy is the RoadPeace Advocacy and Justice Manager – Amy inspired us, helped us to fight and encouraged us to believe that our voices could count for something, she is a very special person and holds a place in our hearts forever.

 

This is a path that we never wished to walk on – it has been difficult and involved late nights, and endless evenings and weekends sending letters, emails and meeting people. It has been tiring.  However, we have travelled on this journey together, constantly supported each other, and developed a wonderful friendship.

 

We would say to anyone who has experienced or seen injustice and wants to bring about change -please keep going and persevere. Don’t give up. You can do it. Your voice does matter. 

 

We wish we could turn back the clock and prevent what happened to Gina and Peter, but we cannot. So instead, we give thanks that they have spared other families this awful suffering, and we cherish every single memory we have of them – we carry them in our hearts, and we treasure them always.

 

Elaine Gordon and Lucy Harrison.

 

ENDS

 

 

References

 

Chief Coroner Guidance 32, Post-Mortem Examination Including 2nd Post-Mortems, 23.09.19 chief coroner guidance no.32 – post-mortem examinations including second post-mortem examinations – september 2019

 

Lucy and Elaine’s Blog, documenting their experiences https://dignityforthedeceased.wordpress.com/

 

For further information contact: 

RoadPeace

Victoria Lebrec, Campaign Coordinator and Press Manager, victoria.lebrec@roadpeace.org, 07807198361