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Bill to allow coroners to investigate suicide stumbles again in the Lords

04 November 2022

Change in law would help to identify the reasons that lead some compulsive gamblers to take their own life, says bishop

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THE Government has refused to back a move by the Bishop of St Albans, Dr Alan Smith, to allow coroners to investigate why people have taken their own lives.

Dr Smith, a campaigner against certain practices in the gambling industry which he considers particularly dangerous, holds that a change in the law would help to identify the reasons that lead some compulsive gamblers to kill themselves.

But his effort in the House of Lords to add the question “Why?” to the four existing duties of a coroner’s inquest — to ask who, what, when, and how — was rejected by the Ministry of Justice’s Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Lord Bellamy.

While agreeing that the Bishop’s objective was laudable, he said that the Bill was not an appropriate extension of the coroner’s jurisdiction; it was not likely to produce statistical information that was significantly complete, comprehensive, or consistent across jurisdictions; and there was already a system to draw attention to difficult cases — the Prevention of Future Deaths reports.

It was the third time that Dr Smith had brought his Coroners (Determination of Suicide) Bill before the House. Two previous versions were withdrawn for amendment after the Government raised concerns.

During the Bill’s Second Reading last Friday, he told peers: “The genesis of the Bill is the frustration that many of us in your Lordships’ House have felt when we have tried to bring in sensible reforms to the Wild West of online gambling, which is causing untold suffering in communities across our nation.

“More than a third of a million adults in our country are now diagnosed with a gambling addiction. More than 62,000 teenagers, who in law are not even allowed to gamble, have been diagnosed with a gambling problem. With an estimated more than 400,000 suicides every year due to problem gambling, we need to address this problem in a sensible way.”

Dr Smith said that many coroners, either informally or through the use of a Prevention of Future Deaths report, already commented on the causes of many suicides. The most recent was Andrew Walker, a senior north-London coroner who investigated the death of Molly Russell, the 14-year-old who took her life after trawling social media sites promoting self-harm and suicide.

The Bill would “create a strong framework to enable the recording of factors causative in a death by suicide without interfering with the coronial process, placing undue responsibilities on the coroner, or creating judicial difficulties. It is only by addressing these causative factors that we can have an effective suicide-prevention strategy.”

The Bishop of Exeter, the Rt Revd Robert Atwell, supported the Bill. “As a nation, we are adept at collecting statistics, but less good at reflecting on them,” he said. “If the Government’s suicide-prevention strategy is to be effective, it is vital that we have as accurate a picture as possible. We have to move from anecdote to evidence, and our coroners are well placed to help us.”

Responding to the Minister’s opposition, Dr Smith called on fellow peers, particularly those with judicial backgrounds, to develop amendments that might overcome the Government’s objections. “These are areas where I have no experience at all; I am just a jobbing bishop from the sticks. We have these legal experts here who can help us. . . I hope they will enable us to improve the Bill as we bring it back.”

The Bill now goes to the Committee Stage, at a date to be announced.

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