Legal Update
13 July 2021

Chief Coroner’s Guidance No.41: The Use of ‘Pen Portrait’ Materials, 5 July 2021

Legal update written by Abigail Telford.   What are pen portrait materials? Pen portrait materials are statements and other documents, such as photographs, that enable the family and friends of the deceased subject of the inquest to present a picture of who that person was in life. The Chief Coroner’s latest guidance recognises that such materials can humanise the inquest process and provide dignity to the deceased.   What is the guidance? The Chief Coroner has endorsed the increasingly common practice of coroners hearing inquests to allow pen portrait materials to be adduced, subject to the caveat that it may not be appropriate in all cases. The Guidance states that the materials can assist with addressing one of the key four statutory questions of who the deceased was (the other three questions being when, where and how the deceased died). The Guidance identifies four categories of inquest, setting out the usual circumstances regarding pen portrait materials for each:
  • Documentary only rule 23 inquests: where there would not ordinarily be attendance, no pen portrait materials would usually be required.
  • Inquests with only family and friends: the informal approach typical in such inquests enables the family and friends of the deceased to tell the coroner something about their loved one.
  • Inquests with interested persons present but no jury: the Guidance suggests that advance notice of a family statement is preferred, but a flexible approach is to be expected from coroners. The coroner hearing the inquest can decide what materials are to be permitted and when they can be adduced.
  • Inquests where a coroner sits with a jury: where photographs relating to the circumstances of a person’s death are to be adduced, a family may want to adduce photographs of the deceased in life. This is permissible, but the type, timing and amount of such materials remains a matter for the coroner. Directions at a Pre-Inquest Review should provide for advance disclosure of these materials. The Guidance recognises that some families will want to read their statements themselves, whilst others might prefer a lawyer, coroner’s officer or other person to do this for them. Importantly, the Guidance states that a coroner should make clear to a jury that what is said or seen in Pen Portrait Materials is not evidence and is not to be taken into account when considering appropriate conclusions.
  Comment Pen portraits have been widely but inconsistently used in inquests for a long time. In my experience, they humanise what can otherwise be a deeply impersonal process. However, practice has varied between courts and coroners, and guidance aimed at unifying practice is to be welcomed. That said, the Guidance could be read as doing little more than simply documenting the current practice, because a large degree of discretion is still left to the coroner hearing each inquest as to whether to permit such materials. Although the Guidance can be read as encouragement to allow pen portrait materials, it is possible that some coroners may still resist allowing their inclusion on the basis that they already know who died and therefore the materials are not required to answer one of the key questions. Equally, pressure to conclude an inquest in an efficient and timely manner could inadvertently dissuade a busy coroner from permitting such materials. The Guidance will however provide support for families and those representing them - particularly at the Pre-Inquest Review Stage - when arguing that pen portrait materials should be permitted. Moreover, the Guidance could be seen as a step in the direction of a more victim focused, or at least victim acknowledging, approach in the Coroner’s Court.   Abigail Telford is a member of Parklane Plowden's specialist Inquests and Inquiries team. To view Abigail's profile, click here.