Two coroners have questioned whether Government proposals to reduce the number of full-time coroners will really benefit the bereaved.

The reforms are aimed at modernising a service which has been criticised by the Government as fragmented, unaccountable and archaic.

New measures include giving families the opportunity to challenge verdicts and require all coroners to work full-time and be legally qualified.

The plans will reduce the number of coroners from 111, of who 28 are full-time and 83 part-time, to between 60 and 65 full-time coroners covering areas largely aligned with local justice boundaries.

Aidan Cotter, coroner for Birmingham and Solihull, said the scheme meant bereaved families in some localities would not get a proper service.

"I am not sure you can cover England and Wales just on full time appointments because you will get localities that won't get a proper service and that is not fair on the families," he said. "Local links will be lost.

"Whatever the changes are they must be designed to make the system better than it is now.

"I find it hard to imagine how the same service can be delivered by halving the existing number of coroners."

David Halpern, the part-time coroner for Herefordshire and senior partner at Hereford law firm Lamb Corner. He deals with about 750 deaths a year.

He echoed Mr Cotter's concerns, saying Herefordshire would be one of the regions adversely affected by the reforms.

"If coroners are more centralised, they may be able to do the work physically, but is that all we really want?" he said.

"I have been in Hereford practically all my working life. If someone has a problem they will ring me. They won't do that if they have to ring some amorphous body in Birmingham."

The Government has so far given little detail of how the reforms will work in practice, promising a draft Coroner Reform Bill in the spring.

It has said a new chief coroner should be in post by 2007, with the reforms coming into force in 2010.

M r Cotter questioned whether the infrastructure was in place for the reforms to take place.

"It is no good saying we have to improve the system because coroners aren't treating bereaved families properly, and then find some coroners don't even have a court to sit in," he said

"Resources are a major problem even here in Birmingham where the council is anxious to help me provide the best service possible."