In 2017, there were demands for increased legal aid to level the unequal, coronial playing field where families struggle for representation and state actors very much don’t. In response, in 2019 the government published its Review of Legal Aid for Inquests. No more money for bereaved families was provided, but criticism of their barristers was. Part of the problem, said the Review, was that sometimes barristers are adversarial and demonstrate inappropriate behaviour.

It seems that the Bar Standards Board’s new Resources for those practising in the Coroners’ Court have been developed in response to the government’s criticism. So, what have we got? To start, there are eight video clips including two from the Chief Coroner. The first of these two is a helpful three-minute inquest explainer for people who’ve never attended one. Much of the other speakers’ content can, as one of them acknowledges, be summarised as ‘common sense and good manners’.

The importance of early disclosure of ‘all relevant and disclosable documents’ is stressed. The need to comply with the duty of candour is endorsed. Considerable attention is drawn to the needs of the bereaved who are likely to be vulnerable. Care and thought are required in all dealings with them, in and outside the courtroom, and advocacy must be suitably tailored: ‘lawyers must adapt to the vulnerable witness, not the other way around’. There is one direct reference to the adversarial style deprecated by the Review report: ‘People in organisations are accountable so robust difficult questions may have to be put but hostile, aggressive, repetitive questioning is unwelcome.

More than one video speaker states that barristers are expected to ‘manage expectations’. Why it is for the family’s barrister, and not the Coroner, to manage the expectations of the bereaved and vulnerable in a first instance process that is stacked against them, and where judicial review of a wrong or unjust judicial decision will be out of their financial reach, is not explained.

Next, ‘The competences’ are introduced. The Chief Coroner’s second video tells us that these are important, they have been developed by Coroners, will feature in Coroners’ training and Coroners will be ‘vigilant to ensure that all lawyers are meeting the competences’. They are: ‘procedure’, ‘dealing with vulnerability’, ‘communication and engagement’ and ‘awareness of key organisations’. Helpfully, they fit on one side of A4.

Then come four drop down menus under the headings: ‘communicating effectively’ and ‘keeping your knowledge up to date’ (entry level, sound advice), ‘working with other organisations’ (a useful, hyperlinked list of 12 support groups) and ‘training providers’ (The Advocates’ Gateway (TAG) and the Inner Temple training programme on Advocacy and the Vulnerable).

The last of the four is a ‘resources’ tab. It is this that is most worthwhile. There is a hyperlink to the Office of the Chief Coroner (which link puts you three clicks away from all relevant statutes and SIs as well as his Law Sheets), the Coroners’ Society, The Advocate’s Gateway and the Equal Treatment Bench Book, which contains more practical information on advocacy and vulnerable people.

The Resources then conclude with eight paragraphs on to ‘How to report a concern about a barrister’s performance in an inquest’.

Inquests have two main problems. First, inadequate legal aid for families – they should never be the only unrepresented people in the room. Second, the lack of a unified national service. That contributes to arbitrary and inconsistent decision-making which too often goes unchallenged because of problem number one. No amount of barristerial competences can make up for either. Effort has clearly been put in but since we barristers are not the problem, this set of resources was never going to be a solution.

Finally, for the government’s latest thinking on all things coronial, see its Response to the House of Commons Justice Committee’s First Report, published on 10 September 2021.