Published: 00:01, 08 August 2017
Bereaved families are having to travel across the county to attend inquests during an overhaul of its coroner service.
Most hearings are being held at Archbishop’s Palace in Maidstone, though Kent County Council (KCC) has not yet opened public consultation on its ambition to centralise the service.
The authority, which spends £3.4 million on the independent coroner system, wants to merge the county's four coroner areas into one, to improve performance.
With the blessing of the chief coroner this has been done piecemeal.
North east, central and south east Kent courts have come under the control of senior coroner Patricia Harding, but they remain separate jurisdictions.
It follows the retirement of Rebecca Cobb and Rachel Redman.
Roger Hatch, who covers the north west of the county, remains in post and his court will return to Gravesend after works at the Old Town Hall are completed.
Hearings formerly held in Folkestone have been transferred more than 30 miles away to Maidstone. Inquests continue in the north east as normal.
To add to the uncertainty the lease on the Archbishop’s Palace is due to expire in 2020 and the coroner service is set to be transferred to Cantium House, opposite County Hall.
The merger of all four coroners’ areas into one would not mean all cases necessarily being held in Maidstone.
Public consultation and discussion by county councillors is now on the cards.
Earlier this year Cllr Trudy Dean, leader of the Liberal Democrats, attacked the service over its slow pace of work.
She said centralisation would bring welcome consistency, but said there should be some assistance for families who have to travel further and find the expense a problem.
She added: “Centralisation must not make it easier for KCC or any other agency to interfere with the conduct of cases and there must be strict safeguards.
“What I find disturbing is KCC agreed in February to my proposal to hold a special inquiry into these issues to ensure the coroners were delivering a value for money service and operating in the best public interest.
"It has apparently been decided to go ahead with these changes without a detailed inquiry" - Cllr Trudy Dean
“A number of staff and bereaved families contacted me suggesting they would support such an investigation and yet it has apparently been decided to go ahead with these changes without such an detailed inquiry.”
The potential transfer of the coroner service away from Archbishop’s Palace raises questions about other potential uses of one of the County Town’s best known and most beautiful historic attractions.
The 800-year-old building is owned by Maidstone Borough Council and, as indicated by its name, was once part of the Manor of Maidstone built by Archbishop Courtenay.
It was once used as a resting place for Archbishops travelling between London and Canterbury.
When it was given to the council at the beginning of the 20th century it was in a poor state and continued to decay until 1990 when the council carried out a £3.5 million restoration project alongside Holy Trinity Church.
More recently the palace has been leased by Kent County Council, which runs a registry office and coroner’s court and hosts citizenship ceremonies.
In the intervening period it has also served as a dance school, heritage centre and cafe.
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