Coroners are judicial officers, either solicitors or barristers, and/or qualified medical practitioners with at least five years’ experience. They are appointed by the local authority and can only be removed from office by the Lord Chancellor.

In some cases, a death will be referred to the coroner, and you will have to await the outcome of this referral before you can arrange the funeral.

 

What does a coroner do?

A coroner is in charge of determining who the deceased was and the circumstances of their death. If the cause of death is not obvious to the coroner, or the death was not from natural causes they will order a post-mortem examination, otherwise known as a coroner’s inquest, to work out the cause of death.

A coroner’s inquest is a public investigation that aims to:

  • Find out the medical cause of death
  • Draw attention to the existence of circumstances which, if nothing is done, might lead to further deaths
  • Advance medical knowledge
  • Preserve the legal interests of the deceased person’s family or other interested parties

 

Who can refer a death to a coroner?

  • Doctors
  • Police
  • Bank and building society
  • Registrar of deaths (if the cause of death appears to be due to industrial disease or poisoning)

 

When will a doctor refer a death to a coroner?

A doctor will refer the death to the coroner:

  • If the doctor is uncertain about the cause of death and is not able to issue a medical certificate
  • If it has been over 28 days since the deceased was last seen by a doctor
  • If someone has been admitted to hospital less than 24 hours before their death
  • If the cause of death is violent or unnatural

Typically around 50% of deaths in the UK are reported to the coroner.

 

What happens next when a death is reported to a coroner?

There are 3 typical outcomes when a death is reported to a coroner.

The most common outcome is that the coroner will make some enquiries, typically phone interviews, to establish what the cause of death was. If they are satisfied that a post-mortem or inquest aren’t needed then they will provide a Pink Form A. This form needs to be taken to the register office who will now be able to register the death and allow funeral arrangements to begin. This outcome happens in roughly 60% of all deaths reported to the coroner.

The second outcome is that the coroner asks a pathologist (a doctor specialised in diagnosing diseases) to conduct a post-mortem. This happens in around 40% of deaths reported to a coroner. The purpose of this is to allow further investigations into the cause of death. Following this procedure, if the coroner is now able to determine that the cause of death was natural then he will issue a Pink Form B. This form allows the death to be registered at the register office and funeral arrangements to begin.

The third possible outcome is that the coroner will open an inquest into the death. The coroner does this if he thinks the death may have been violent or unnatural, or if following the post-mortem the cause of death is still unknown. If a post-mortem has been undertaken the coroner will usually issue a form allowing burial or cremation to take place.

 

If a death is reported to the coroner, is an inquest always held?

No. After initial examination of the evidence, a coroner may decide that an inquest is not necessary. He or she will send details to the registrar confirming that the death is natural.

 

When is a coroner’s inquest needed?

Coroners open an inquest into about 10-15% of all deaths reported to them.

If the post-mortem examination shows that a death has not occurred from natural causes an inquest will be held.

There are certain cases where a coroner is obliged to hold an inquest even when the death is from natural causes, such as when someone was under arrest or in prison at the time of death.

Circumstances when a coroner’s inquest is required:

  • No known cause of death
  • Uncertain or unnatural cause of death (violence, neglect, abortion or in suspicious circumstances)
  • Doctor not present at or before the death to issue a death certificate
  • No medical attention was given for an illness which occurred just before the death
  • No medical examination was made by the doctor issuing the death certificate during a period of 14 days before the death
  • Death during or immediately after an operation, or following administration of an anaesthetic
  • Death due to industrial disease or poisoning
  • Death occurred in prison; in police custody or following police contact; or during detention in a psychiatric hospital

 

What is the purpose of a coroner’s inquest?

An inquest is opened by the coroner in order to issue a burial order or cremation certificate as well as to hear evidence confirming the identity of the deceased.

Inquests are not, however held to establish blame and the verdict will not be used to classify someone as having criminal or civil liability. Most inquests should take place within 6 months of the death.

When the coroner’s investigations are finalised, a date for the inquest is set and the necessary people are informed.

If the authorities charge someone with causing the death, the inquest will not be continued to avoid two different courts analysing the same evidence. Subsequently, the next of kin will be informed of the arrangements that need to be made to register the death.

 

Are inquests public or private?

Inquests are typically open to the public and journalists are often present.

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