The office that investigates the cause of deaths in parts of Yorkshire has been forced to draft in extra workers from other parts of the region after staff shortages left a backlog of more than 100 cases waiting to be looked into.
West Yorkshire Police today issued an apology after admitting that “significant” staff shortages at Wakefield Coroner’s Court had impacted services to the public.
The backlog of cases has also been caused by “an unprecedented high demand on services, particularly over the Christmas and New Year period”.
Staff at Bradford Coroner’s Court were brought in to take on some of the cases, and though staffing levels are now back at a normal level there were still 94 cases awaiting allocation as of February 3.
Separately, The Yorkshire Post can reveal that David Hinchliff, the senior coroner at Wakefield, is under investigation by an official watchdog over remarks made at a recent inquest.
It is understood the comments were made at the inquest into the death of Kevin Ellis, a West Yorkshire police officer who took his own life following his arrest on suspicion of possessing indecent images of children.
We would like to extend our apologies to any families who have experienced any disruption or distress in their contact with the services of the coroner.Acting Superintendent Nicola Bryar, West Yorkshire Police
At one stage last month, the backlog at Wakefield Coroner’s Court was more than 100, with some cases only being dealt with by coroner’s officers ten days after the deaths were reported.
Acting Superintendent Nicola Bryar, of Protective Services Crime at West Yorkshire Police, denied that the delays represented a crisis but said: “We would like to extend our apologies to any families who have experienced any disruption or distress in their contact with the services of the coroner.
“In recent months there has been a significant shortage of staff at Wakefield Coroner’s Court due to staff sickness which has impacted services to the public.
“However, staffing levels are now back to their normal level and all services have resumed to cope with any disruption or delay to services.
“During this period, colleagues at Bradford Coroner’s Court supported staff over in Wakefield, to facilitate an unprecedented high demand on services, particularly over the Christmas and New Year period.”
David Hinchliff, Senior Coroner, said: “I fully sympathise with families and understand that, because of the nature of the Coroner’s Office work, any delay is distressing.
“I have been assured that everything is being done to attend to cases as quickly as possible and I will be working with Police colleagues to ensure that measures are in place to improve the service we are able provide to families and their loved ones.” The coroner’s service in West Yorkshire, which investigates any sudden or unexplained death, is split into offices in Wakefield, covering the eastern side of the patch, and Bradford, covering the western side.
The Senior Coroner and Area and Assistant Coroners are independent judicial office holders, not employed by Wakefield Council or West Yorkshire Police, but are supported in their work by both authorities.
West Yorkshire Police employ Coroner’s Officers to investigate deaths reported to the Coroner through the police’s systems. Wakefield council employ staff to offer administrative support after the investigation.
According to Wakefield council, as of February 3, officers were dealing with deaths reported to them on January 30, with 94 deaths awaiting allocation.
In a period of just over a month, the last couple of days of December 2016 and all of January 2017, the reported number of deaths was 670.
A council spokeswoman said: “Due to the time of year (winter and Christmas) there has been an increased number of deaths reported. This is an annual trend.
“There has also been an increased number of deaths generally reported, with the increased volume of acute cases now being dealt with by the region’s hospitals.
“There has also been a number of Police Coroner’s Officers absent from work due to sickness.
“This has resulted in a backlog of deaths that the Police Coroner’s Officers are dealing with. The point of delay has occurred at the investigative stage not at the administrative stage.
“West Yorkshire Police have put measures in place to deal with the backlog. Additional resources have been brought in, this includes Coroner’s Officers from the western area to support eastern area colleagues.
“Additionally, West Yorkshire Police have diverted extra staff to support the investigative work. The majority of absent staff have now returned to work.”
In relation to the complaint about Mr Hinchliff, a spokesman for the Judicial Conduct Investigations Office (JCIO) said: “I can confirm that the JCIO is investigating a complaint against West Yorkshire East Senior Coroner David Hinchliff following remarks made in court.
“Any findings of misconduct against judicial office holders are published on the JCIO website at the conclusion of investigations.”
Mr Hinchliff declined to comment on the JCIO investigation.