When someone dies, the death is either treated as natural, suspicious, or unknown. In suspicious and unknown cases, a coroner is required to investigate the death and determine the cause.
A coroner will also be involved in deaths where someone may have taken their own life, died from medical incident, or been involved in an accident. Although this may be a distressing time for the family, it’s important to discover what the cause of death was, so that this can be recorded and any immediate actions taken.
What is a coroner?
A coroner is someone who determines the cause of death in unknown or suspicious circumstances. This is achieved by hearing evidence presented to them by experts and / or witnesses. This means that a coroner is a type of judge and is, in fact, a judicial office holder. They’re appointed by the local authority for their region.
A coroner will have qualifications and high levels of expertise in law, medicine, or both. It is essential that coroners have a legal background. In the UK, if you want to become a coroner, you must have at least five years’ experience as a qualified solicitor or barrister. Before 2013, it wasn’t necessary for a coroner to have legal experience, but this has now changed. There are still some coroners who are in office without legal experience, who are known as medical coroners.
What does a coroner do?
Usually, most deaths do not require a coroner. This is because the individual who has died will have been seen by a doctor or medical care team – usually within 14 days of the death occurring. However, if the doctor cannot make a decision on the cause of death, this is where a coroner would step in to investigate. Other scenarios where a coroner would be applicable are:
- When a death is suspicious or unknown
- When a death is unnatural i.e. suicide
- When a death is violent
- When a person has died from poisoning
- When a death is caused by industrial injury
- When a person dies in police custody
- When there is a question of negligence i.e. medical
The coroner’s job is then to gather evidence and investigate the circumstances in which the death occurred. This investigation is usually carried out by the police, who will then provide the coroner with the evidence to determine the cause of death. Of course, this can be a long process and doesn’t always deliver a straightforward answer.
If the death cannot be determined by a medical doctor or there is no clear cause, a post-mortem examination is required.
What is a post-mortem examination?
When a death is not deemed by natural causes, a post-mortem examination may be ordered by a coroner. Sometimes a post-mortem is referred to as an autopsy. A post-mortem is where an individual’s body is examined after death.
It doesn’t always have to be in relation to how a person died, but could be because they had an illness before their death that needs further investigation. These types of post-mortem require your consent and are generally very important, as they assist medical professionals in developing new and improved medicines and treatments.
Post-mortems are conducted by a pathologist, who will investigate and study the body closely in order to determine how a person died. The post-mortem will allow the coroner to discover whether a death was the result of a crime, which will then require an inquest.
What is an inquest?
An inquest is conducted after a person has died, particularly if they have passed away in suspicious circumstances, such as murder. The inquest will be called for by the coroner investigating the death and it will allow them to discover further answers, such as:
- When the individual died
- Where they were when they died
- How they died
Usually a coroner will already know the answers to the first two questions and it will be how an individual died that is the focus of the inquest. Inquests are not completed in front of a jury, although in some cases, this may be required i.e. if the death happened in police custody and was suspicious. A coroner is allowed to request a jury if they believe it is necessary. Family members of the deceased are allowed to attend an inquest.
The coroner will then hear evidence and witness statements, in which they can return questions to discover more information. The inquest must end with a decision by the coroner on the cause of death.
Please use this resource section below to help you answer any further questions you may have about coroners and inquest procedures.
Coroners, post-mortems and inquests – NI Direct Government Services
What does a coroner do? – Funeral Guide
Guide to coroner services – GOV.UK