Fears merger of coroner services would see inquests held out of town

Former Senior Coroner for Hartlepool Malcolm Donnelly
Former Senior Coroner for Hartlepool Malcolm Donnelly

Hartlepool councillors are opposing a new proposed merger of coroner services with Teesside.

Town officials fear a single service would see investigations into sudden or unexplained deaths dealt with outside of Hartlepool.

Hartlepool Borough Council leader Christopher Akers-Belcher.

Hartlepool Borough Council leader Christopher Akers-Belcher.

The Ministry of Justice, which will make the final decision, says the proposed merger is part of reforms to make sure grieving families get the best service possible.

An amalgamated Hartlepool and Teesside coroners service has been on the table since 2014 following the retirement of Teesside coroner Michael Sheffield.

Plans were shelved last year after disagreement between Hartlepool and Middlesbrough councils.

The issue is being looked at again after the senior coroner for Hartlepool Malcolm Donnelly retired at the end of June.

An updated business case by Hartlepool council and Middlesbrough council legal officers says it is “imperative” the chance to merge the two services is taken to prevent large backlogs of cases like that previously seen on Teesside.

But the leader of Hartlepool Borough Council, Councillor Christopher Akers-Belcher said: “We want to keep our own coroner service in Hartlepool where it has always worked really well.

“Numbers might be low but the people of Hartlepool when we speak to them wanted to retain it and felt if it was amalgamated, over a period of time it could lead to the migrating of our inquests being dealt with outside of Hartlepool.”

The senior coroner for Teesside, Clare Bailey has been appointed by Hartlepool council as acting senior coroner for the town.

Coun Akers-Belcher added: “We want them in Hartlepool, we don’t want an amalgamated service.

“It’s outside of our control but I certainly wasn’t going to accept something if everybody in Hartlepool was telling us that they wanted their own coroner service.”

A Ministry of Justice spokesman said: “We want to make sure grieving families receive the highest level of service when they are most in need, which is why we are determined that coroner investigations, including inquests, are conducted consistently across the country.

“The proposed merger of the Hartlepool and Teesside coroner areas is part of our reforms to put bereaved people at the heart of the coroner system while enabling local authorities to run a more efficient service.”

The ministry says there will be consultation on the proposal.