New drive to clear armed forces' inquest backlog

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Government officials have been sent into the offices of the Oxford coroner to sort out a backlog which has meant families of servicemen killed in Iraq waiting more than three years for inquests.

As The Independent highlighted last week, almost two thirds of families who have lost loved ones since the invasion have still not had the "closure" that an inquest brings. If soldiers killed in Afghanistan are taken into account, 111 families are waiting for their day in court. Because most are repatriated to RAF Brize Norton this has led to a backlog at Oxford and the families accused the Government of treating them with contempt by prolonging their agony.

A source within the Department for Constitutional Affairs (DCA) revealed that the coroner, Nicholas Gardiner, while completely independent of ministers, had allowed its staff to go through his files to help solve the problem.

Harriet Harman, Minister of State at the DCA, is expected to promise today that all the 2003 and 2004 deaths will be dealt with by the end of the year. She said the length of the waits that the families had been forced to endure was unacceptable, adding: "That is what has prompted us to take action. We are doing everything we can to make sure it gets sorted." The DCA recently allocated a further £80,000 to the Oxford coroner along with three additional assistant deputy coroners.

Mr Gardiner said there was only a small window of opportunity after a body was repatriated for him to pass on jurisdiction. But a DCA spokesman insisted that there were circumstances where the case could be transferred later if both coroners agreed.

* The bodies of 14 servicemen killed when an RAF Nimrod crashed in Afghanistan on 2 September have still not been returned to their families. Des Browne, the Defence Secretary, said he would not discuss the reasons as it would be "distressing and inappropriate".