Coroners' courts face overhaul to stop Shipman-style killing

The verdict of suicide would be scrapped in an overhaul of the "seriously neglected" network of coroners' courts, under plans published yesterday by the Home Office.

An independent review, set up after the discovery of the murders committed by the Manchester GP Harold Shipman, published a report that was scathing on the state of the outdated and underfunded system. It demanded tough rules to detect any possible killing spree and greater freedom for relatives to scrutinise decisions made by coroners.

The proposed shake-up of inquest verdicts would mean "suicide" being replaced by the more neutral phrase "death from a deliberate act of self-harm or injury". The review team said the term dated from the days when suicide was a criminal offence and it presented problems for coroners attempting to establish beyond reasonable doubt the state of mind of the dead person.

The report also called for such inquests to be made in private unless public interest could be demonstrated.

The review feared that stories of people killing themselves could lead to copycat suicides. In the light of the Shipman murders, the team called for coroners to audit numbers of deaths routinely in an effort to detect any abnormal patterns. It proposed that all deaths should be certified by two doctors, the second from an independent panel with the power to demand all relevant medical records. The report warned that at the moment there was "little to stop an unscrupulous doctor from 'certifying his way out of trouble'."

Tom Luce, the review chairman, said yesterday: "There is a big hole in the arrangements around the death certification process. There is no public authority responsible for ensuring it works properly."

The review called for a reduction in the number of coroners' areas in England and Wales, from 130 to 60.

The present system has barely changed in the past century. Mr Luce said the system had been surviving "hand to mouth", with many coroners working in difficult and inadequate circumstances.