What is the Coroner?
The coroner is called in when a death is sudden or unexpected or sometimes just because the doctor who had been treating the patient is on holiday. What it doesn’t mean is that the death is being treated as suspicious, so DON’T PANIC. This article is relevant to England and Wales.
If the Coroner is involved:
If organ or tissue donation is intended, immediate advice is needed from the hospital or the coroner’s officer. Then a Tissue Donor Coordinator or a Donor Transplant Coordinator will be able to discuss the options. The coroner must agree before the donation can happen. Sometimes it just won’t be possible for medical reasons, or because the Coroners investigations delay things too long.
As next-of-kin, you have the have the right:
• to be told in advance the date, time and place of the Coroners post mortem if reasonably possible.
■ to have a medical representative at the post mortem to observe.
■ to be told the date, time and place of the inquest if there is one.
■ to question any witnesses at the inquest, or to have a legal representative do so for you.
You can also:
■ ask the coroner to see the body before it is released for the funeral.
■ ask for a copy of the post mortem (though there may be a fee.)
■ ask the coroner for a separate post mortem at your expense with pathologist of your choice. If the coroner has released the body, you will need the consent of the executor of the dead person’s estate.
Other people may have similar rights.
An inquest is not always needed. Where an inquest is needed, a short initial hearing will take place within days. The full inquest will generally follow some time later, if it is required.
1. Who are Coroners?
Coroners are independent judicial officers guided by specific laws and rules. Each coroner has a deputy and one or the other must be available 24 x 7. Coroners are generally lawyers but may also be doctors.
2. What do Coroners do?
Coroners look into deaths which appear to be violent, unnatural, or of sudden and unknown cause. The coroner will try to discover the medical cause of death. If doubt remains after a post mortem an inquest is held.
Taking the deceased abroad or bringing them back to England or Wales
To gain permission to take the body abroad, you need to give written notice to the coroner. The coroner will advise you within 4 days if further enquiries are still needed.
If you want to bring the deceased back to England or Wales, the coroner ask for advice from your local coroner’s office. The coroner may need to be involved.
3. What is the Coroner’s Officer?
Coroners’ Officers are often police officers and liaise with families, police, doctors and funeral directors.
4. Are all deaths reported to the Coroner?
No. In mostly, the GP or hospital doctor is able to issue a Medical Certificate and the death can then be registered by the Registrar of Births and Deaths in the normal way.
Registrars, doctors or the police must report deaths to the coroner in some circumstances. For example: if the doctor can’t give a Certificate of a Cause of Death; if the death was during an operation; or was due to an industrial disease; or if it was unnatural, due to violence, or in any other suspicious situation.
5. What is a Post Mortem?
It’s a medical examination of the deceased for the coroner by a pathologist of the coroner’s choice. The consent of the next-of-kin is not required for a coroner’s post mortem.
6. Post Mortem Report.
The report gives details of the results of the pathologists examination of the deceased and of any lab tests. Copies of the post mortem report are usually be available to next-of-kin and to certain other relatives. A fee may be payable.
7. Will Organs be retained after a coroner’s post mortem?
When the cause of death is known and further examinations are uneccessary, organs or tissue must be returned to the body. If the funeral has already happened, the wishes of the next of kin are followed and their consent obtained, should pathologists wish to keep or remove anything for research or training.
8. Medical Records.
Medical records are still confidential after death. Coroners necessarily are able to ask for medical information they consider is relevant and necessary.
9. When can the funeral be held?
If the post mortem confirms that the death was from natural causes and an inquest is unnecessary, the coroner will release the deceased and you can then register the death and organise the funeral.
If an inquest is required, the coroner can usually give the undertaker a burial order or cremation certificate after the post mortem. If charges have been brought for causing the death, a second post mortem may be needed and perhaps further investigations. Therefor the release of the deceased and the funeral may be delayed.
10. Issue of the Death Certificate
Where death was from natural causes, the coroner will tell the registrar and the death can them be formally registered and the Death Certificate issued. However, if an inquest is required, the Coroner may give an Interim Certificate of Fact of Death to help with administration of the deceaseds’ estate. When the inquest is over, the coroner notifies the registrar and then a normal death certificate can be issued.
11. What is a Coroners inquest?
A coroners inquest enquires into who has died and how, when and where the death occurred. It is not a trial; it is not the coroners job to point the finger at anyone, that is for the Police.
The Coroners inquest is formally opened to record that a death has happened and to confirm the identity of the dead person. It is then adjourned until any police and coroners enquiries have been completed. The full inquest can then be resumed.
12. Attendance at an inquest.
When the coroner’s investigations are over, a date for the inquest to continue is made and the relevant people notified, if their contact details are available to the coroner. Inquests are open to the public and to journalists.
13. Witnesses called to give evidence at an Inquest.
Coroners decide who to call to give evidence. Anyone who thinks they – or another person – can help should offer to give evidence by informing the coroner. Witnesses can be required to attend and give evidence at the inquest.
14. Questioning of witnesses.
Witnesses will be questioned by the coroner and perhaps by “properly interested persons”, or their legal representatives. Questions must be relevant.
People with a “proper interest” include:
■ parent, child, spouse, (or lawyer representative) of the deceased;
■ person who may have a responsibility for the death;
■ a beneficiary from an insurance policy relating to the deceased;
■ representatives of the insurance company;
■ a representative from a relevant trade union (where death was connected employment or was due to industrial disease);
■ certain inspectors or representatives of enforcing authorities or of a government department;
■ the police;
■ any other people the coroner feels has an interest.
15. Inquests with a jury.
Inquests are held with a jury if death occurs in prison, in custody, at work or if further deaths may occur in similar circumstances. In the coroner decides matters of law and the jury decides the verdict.
16. Coroners Inquest verdicts
Inquests do not seek to apportion blame and the verdict must not identify anyone as having criminal or civil liability.
Potential verdicts include:
- natural causes
- lawful killing
- industrial disease
- open verdicts (where there is insufficient evidence for any other verdict).
The coroner may report the death to any appropriate person or authority, such as the police, Highways Authority or the Health and Safety Executive etc if action is needed to prevent more similar deaths.
17. Can you challenge the result of a Coroners inquest?
You may be able to challenge coroners’ verdicts. However doing so is complex and needs explanation by an expert lawyer, and it may not be possible. An application for judicial review can be made within three months of the inquest. A new inquest can be requested at any time.
18. Coroners Inquest Records.
Notes of Evidence can be reviewed by properly interested persons. Alternatively copies may be obtained for a fee. This may be a transcript from a tape-recording or the coroner’s own notes. Notes may not be a record of every word said.
19. Criminal proceedings.
If a criminal charge is in the Magistrates’ Court, the inquest should be over before the hearing. If the criminal charge is in the Crown or higher courts, the coroner is told of the result, the Registrar of deaths is advised and the inquest is generally closed.
20. Civil proceedings.
Civil proceedings (perhaps for compensation) don’t depend on the result of the inquest or criminal proceedings. You should get proper advice about time limits and the procedures.
Evidence from an inquest, or criminal proceedings, may help families understand what has happened and assist with compensation claims. You may wish to take legal advice before the inquest.
21. Is Legal Aid available?
Legal Aid is not normally available for an inquest. Legal advice under the “Green Form” scheme may be available if you are eligible.
22. The Coroner’s Office
Contact details for the local coroner’s office are available from the police.