Chief Coroner HHJ Thomas Teague KC looks back on his career

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His Honour Judge Thomas Teague KC formally retires as Chief Coroner of England and Wales today (24 May 2024). He talks about his long career as a barrister, judge and Chief Coroner.

Can you introduce yourself, for anyone who doesn’t know you, please?

I’m the Chief Coroner of England and Wales and have been since 24 December 2020.

My role is to provide national leadership to the system of coroners, which does not form a part of HMCTS, but for historical reasons is administered at a local level by local authorities. Until the creation of the post of Chief Coroner, there was really no element of national leadership.

As Chief Coroner my leadership responsibilities include issuing guidance, organising and running training for coroners, transferring investigations from one jurisdiction to another and approving the appointment of coroners.

I also support the resolution of disputes or problems that arise at local level where they threaten the proper functioning of the coroner area. I’m answerable to Parliament in that, every year, I must produce a report into what’s been going on in the world of coroners.

How and where did your legal career start?

I was born in Weymouth, in Dorset, where my father worked as a government scientist. When I was nearly five, we moved up to Chester and we settled there. I’ve always lived either in Chester, Merseyside or in South Lancashire. Now, even though my work has taken me all over the country, my home is still in Chester.

When I left university, I didn’t know for sure what I wanted to do, but I knew that I wanted to use language. I wanted to work with words. I read English literature at university and so, during my last year, I decided that, once I graduated, I would read for the Bar. Initially I did all kinds of common law work – crime, family and civil. But as I progressed, I was mainly prosecuting serious crime, although after taking silk in 2000 I did more defence work.

How did the opportunity to go from barrister to judge present itself?

While I was still a junior barrister, the local judges used to say to me, ‘you ought to apply to be an assistant Recorder’. So, in 1993 I became one and I loved the change from being an advocate. I enjoyed the freedom of being a judge. I wanted to be a Circuit Judge and so eventually in 2006 I applied, was appointed, and deployed to what was then the Wales and Chester Circuit. Later in my career I transferred to Liverpool, where I worked under the leadership of the then Honorary Recorder, Clem Goldstone, to whom I’d like to pay tribute. I learned everything I know about being a leadership judge from him. He had a way of leading, not by snapping at people’s heels, but by inspiring them to want to achieve. I’ve had some other very fine leadership judges too, including HHJ Andrew Menary, who succeeded him not to mention Baroness Carr and her predecessor Lord Burnett.

How did you become Chief Coroner – what interested you in the role?

This is one of those things that happens, you think you’ve got an ordinary day’s work ahead of you, and then your life changes. It was summer 2015 and the phone rang just before I was about to go into court. It was Mr Justice Holroyd (as he then was), he was one of the Presiding Judges of the Northern circuit and told me there was a judge-led inquest which had been handled by one of my colleagues, but he couldn’t continue with it, so would I take it over? I’d only ever done one inquest in my life. I spoke to my wife about it and said yes, I’d do it. It was converted into an inquiry in early 2017 and I published my report in the summer of 2019. I thoroughly enjoyed every aspect of that. By the time I published the report I was back to being a full time Circuit Judge in Liverpool, but I knew the post of Chief Coroner would probably become vacant in the foreseeable future. His Honour Judge Mark Lucraft KC, my predecessor’s, term as Chief Coroner expired in December 2020. When I took over the role it was right at the heart of the second lockdown.

What have been your biggest challenges and achievements in the role of Chief Coroner?

That first year was very difficult, partly because of COVID, but also because, at that time, the Chief Coroner was required to divide their time equally with their home jurisdiction. So, in my case, that meant crime in Liverpool and the new job. It’s really very difficult to do because you can’t be of any use to the Crown Court unless you sit there for a reasonable length of time. You can’t do one day on, one day off. It was quite tricky, particularly as I have a murder authorisation, so I was needed for quite heavy cases. And there’s a limit to what you can do as Chief Coroner while sitting in the Crown Court because you’ve got so little time anyway.

In 2022, I was able to devote more of my time to the role of Chief Coroner and one of my first tasks was my nationwide tour of coroner’s offices. This was immensely valuable in all sorts of ways. I was able to look after welfare and morale to some extent by visiting every single coroner area in England and Wales – at that time there were more than 80. I met the Senior Coroner in each area, assistant coroners, the coroner’s officers – most importantly because they do a lot of routine work – and representatives of police forces and local authorities. Sometimes I was able to solve or help to solve problems on these visits. That occupied the whole of 2022 and the first couple of months of 2023.

I think the other thing I’m quite proud of is that I think I’ve stood up for the coroners. I’ve tried to defend the inquisitorial ethos of their work. I’ve spent quite a lot of time thinking, writing, and speaking about the philosophical basis of our jurisdiction.

In my view the biggest challenge are the delays and backlogs, and we have not been able to reduce them all. Some areas are doing very well, others are not, but overall delay remains a real challenge and a real problem.

What’s something interesting about the judiciary/coroners service you think people don’t know?

It is the oldest form of judiciary that there is, older even than the lay magistracy. It goes back at least to the 12th century and probably even further back; it’s probably a fairly early Norman institution, maybe even Saxon.

The second thing is that it is, I think, the only system of justice that is completely locally administered and run, so that each coroner’s area is quite independent from all the others. I, as Chief Coroner, can’t direct people to do anything because they’re all judges. So, although I provide national leadership, it’s really only through encouragement, guidance, advice, training and so on. It is one of the very few inquisitorial jurisdictions in this country, where the role of the coroner is not to adjudicate, but to investigate.

In many areas, there’s still a complicated governance structure where you have the so-called triangle of responsibility, with the Senior Coroner at the top corner, the local authority at one of the other corners and the third corner occupied by the local policing body. And because they all have to agree over anything important, you can understand straight away that there are problems because they can’t always agree.

But now we have One Judiciary bringing courts and tribunals even closer together, I’d absolutely like to see this happen with the coroner’s service. I understand that Baroness Carr, the Lady Chief Justice, is keen on bringing coroners, as it were, into the wider fold. I’ve had very good strong support from the senior judiciary for bringing coroners into the wider judicial family.

In retrospect what surprises you most about your journey?

That I ended up leading a jurisdiction which I never thought I would even practice in for the bulk of my legal career. And I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. I regard it as very much the high point of my career.

I’ve met many people I might not otherwise have met. I’ve had great support from the senior judiciary. Also, I want to pay tribute to my team and Private Office, and James Parker in particular, because they are a small team who have had to administer what is a pretty hefty system. They work incredibly hard, are immensely loyal and they have become friends. They’re really wonderful.

I’d also like to thank the Judicial Office communications team. I’ve had dealings with the Press Office about various things and their support has been absolutely essential.

What plans do you have for your retirement?

While I intend to leave the law behind, I do have another statutory inquiry that I’ve been asked to chair – I’m going to complete that in retirement. But I would also like to do some postgraduate study and I have other interests: I enjoy playing music, I’m a cellist. I like to go fly fishing for trout when I can. And I’ve got an interest in astronomy; I’ve published quite a number of papers in both amateur and, on one occasion, a professional journal. I’d like to develop that.