Additional police staff have been taken off frontline investigative duties and assigned to the coroner's court serving Leeds and Wakefield as dozens of cases have been left awaiting initial investigations.
There were 68 deaths yet to be allocated to officers at Wakefield Coroner's Court when this week began, meaning delays for grieving families who want to lay their loved ones to rest.
West Yorkshire Police, which employs the coroner’s officers tasked with investigating deaths, apologised in February 2017 after admitting that “significant” staff shortages coupled with “unprecedented high demand” had impacted its services to the public.
It highlighted an alarming spike in sickness rates at the Eastern office in Wakefield, as well as a general lack of training and outdated working practices.
The report also noted there had been a number of other reviews in recent years, with “no real evidence of any significant improvements” being delivered.
It was suggested this lack of change had contributed to a reduction in staff morale and the increased sickness rates.
Superintendent Nick Wallen, of West Yorkshire Police’s Homicide and Major Enquiry Team (HMET), yesterday said that improvements had been made following the most recent review and staffing levels increased.
But he acknowledged the coroner’s office had been affected once again by a rise in deaths during the winter months.
He said: “I do not underestimate the levels of stress that the backlog of cases causes bereaved families but I would like to reassure members of the public that additional police resources have been reassigned from frontline investigative duties to address this issue.”
The Wakefield Coroner’s Office covers the local authorities of Leeds and Wakefield, including three of largest hospitals in the North of England.
“Clearly this is a large population and there will always be high numbers of deaths for the staff in the coroner’s office to manage,” Supt Wallen said. “The winter months do typically see a spike in deaths and, as we and colleagues in the NHS have seen, this winter has been no exception. Exceptionally cold weather has also been a factor in an increase in numbers of people dying.”
All deaths reported to the Coroner are initially received by coroner’s officers and they are responsible for allocating deaths for initial investigation before reporting back to the Coroner.
In addition to coroner’s officers employed by police, Wakefield Council employs administrative staff who support the Coroner once those investigations have been completed.
The most recent review, undertaken by police alongside the council and said to be ongoing still, focused on resourcing of IT and general working practices.
Superintendent Wallen said: “Currently, extra staff from the force’s HMET and new coroners support officers are assisting coroner’s officers to reduce the backlog of cases. Sadly levels of sickness amongst coroner’s officers have also risen during this period, and that has impacted upon resources.”
He said a full-time inspector was also deployed earlier this year to help staff manage their “ever increasing workloads”.