A coroner responds to and investigates deaths that are referred to them because they have occurred in particular circumstances. If necessary, a coroner will arrange for a post-mortem examination to be carried out and they can conduct a legal enquiry into the circumstances of a death, known as an inquest.
When are deaths reported to a coroner?
The law relating to coroners is contained within the Coroners Act 1988 and the Coroners and Justice Act 2009. It is usually a doctor or the police who refers a death to the coroner; however, anyone who is concerned about the circumstances of a death can inform the coroner of it. Under the law, a doctor will refer a death to the coroner if it occurs:
- after an accident or injury;
- during surgery;
- whilst under anaesthetic;
- if the cause of death is unknown;
- following an industrial disease;
- whilst the deceased was in custody;
- violently or unnaturally, such as suicide or a drug overdose; or
- if it was sudden and unexplained, such as cot death.
If the doctor issuing the medical certificate did not see the deceased after the individual died, or during the preceding 14 days before the death, the coroner may be notified.
What does the coroner do after a death is reported to them?
Once a death is reported to a coroner, it cannot be registered until the coroner decides whether further investigation into the cause or circumstances of the death is required. This can often be distressing for the family and friends of the deceased as further investigation means that the funeral will be delayed.
If the cause of death is unclear, the coroner may need to arrange for a post-mortem to be carried out, which is a medical examination of the body at a hospital. People who have strong objections to a post-mortem examination being carried out on the deceased should inform the coroner of these; for example, if they are on religious grounds. However, the coroner does have the right to proceed with a post-mortem irrespective of any objections expressed by family members of the deceased.
If the post-mortem establishes that the deceased died of natural causes, then the death can be registered (once the coroner has issued notification of this). At the same time, the coroner will issue a form allowing the body to be cremated, if necessary.
What is an inquest?
In some cases, the coroner will conduct a legal enquiry in the cause or circumstances of death, which is called an inquest. An inquest will be conducted if:
- the death was violent or unnatural;
- the death took place whilst the deceased was in prison or custody; or
- if a post-mortem fails to reveal the cause of death.
The coroner holds the inquest in public, often with a jury. The spouse or civil partner, nearest relative or personal representative of the deceased must be informed of the inquest, and relatives are also able to attend.
You may wish to consult a solicitor if you are due to attend an inquest, either as a relative of the deceased or as a defendant (if the death occurred under suspicious circumstances or as a result of a work or road accident).