Frequently asked questions

What is a Coroner?

Coroners are independent judicial officers which means that no-one else can tell them or direct them as to what they should do but they must follow the laws and regulations which apply. Each coroner has to have a deputy and between them they have to be available at all times. Coroners are helped by their officers, who receive the reports of deaths and make enquiries on behalf of the coroner. 

What does a Coroner do?

A coroner enquires into those deaths reported to him. It is his duty to find out the medical cause of the death, if it is not known, and to enquire about the cause if it was due to violence or was “unnatural”.

When is a death reported to the Coroner?

Any death that is violent or unnatural must be reported to the coroner. Some examples include deaths where:

  • The medical cause of death is unknown
  • The death cannot readily be certified as being due to natural causes
  • There are suspicious circumstances or a history of violence
  • The death may be linked to an accident (whenever and wherever it might have occurred)
  • There is any question of self neglect or neglect by others
  • The death has occurred or the illness has arisen during or shortly after detention in police or prison custody (including voluntary attendance at a police station)
  • The death has occurred whilst the patient is involuntarily detained under the provisions of the Mental Health Act
  • The death might have been contributed to by the actions of the deceased him/her self (e.g. drug abuse, solvent abuse, self injury or overdose)
  • The death might be due to industrial disease or related in any way to the deceased’s former employment, however long ago.
  • The death may be related to a clinical procedure or treatment
  • The death might be due to lack of medical care

What will the Coroner do?

The coroner may decide that death was natural and that there is a doctor who can sign a form saying so. In this case the coroner will advise the registrar.

The coroner may ask a pathologist to examine the body. If so, the examination must be done as soon as possible. The coroner or his staff should give notice of the arrangements to the usual doctor of the deceased and any relative who may have notified the coroner of his or her wish to be medically represented at the examination. If the examination shows the death to have been a natural one, there may be no need for an inquest and the coroner will send a form to the registrar of deaths so that the death can be registered by the relatives and a certificate of burial issued by the registrar. If the person is to be cremated, the certificate may be issued by the coroner. If the death is not due to a natural cause the Coroner will hold an inquest.

What is the purpose of an inquest?

The inquest is an inquiry to find out who has died, and how, when and where they died, together with information needed by the registrar of deaths, so that the death can be registered. An inquest is purely inquisitorial and is not a forum to establish blame. 

What happens if somebody has been charged with causing the death?

Where a person has been charged with causing someone's death, the inquest is adjourned until the person's trial is over. Before adjourning, the coroner finds out who the deceased was and how he or she died. The coroner then sends a form to the registrar of deaths to allow the death to be registered. When the trial is over, the coroner will not normally resume the inquest.

Will there be criminal or civil proceedings?

Any other court proceedings will normally follow the inquest. When all the facts about the cause of death are known, then a person may be brought before another court, or a claim for damages made. The inquest may be of help to the family of the deceased in finding out what happened. The information obtained may also help to avoid similar accidents in future.

Who decides which witnesses should be called?

The coroner will decide who to ask and in which order they will give evidence. Anyone who can help should tell the coroner or his officer who will then see what relevance and help the evidence may be.

Who can ask questions?

Anyone who has what is called "a proper interest" may question a witness at the inquest. He or she can get a lawyer to ask questions or they can ask questions themselves. Questions must be sensible and relevant. This is something the coroner will decide. 

Who is a "properly interested person"?

  • a parent, spouse, child and anyone acting for the deceased
  • anyone who gains from a life insurance policy on the deceased
  • any insurer having issued such a policy
  • anyone whose actions the coroner believes may have contributed to the death, accidentally or otherwise
  • the chief officer of police (who may only ask witnesses questions through a lawyer)
  • any person appointed by a government department to attend the inquest
  • anyone else who the coroner may decide also has a proper interest. If you ask, the coroner or his officer will advise you as to whether you have a proper interest.

Is Legal Aid Available?

Legal Aid for the vast majority is not available but if the death invokes article 2 of European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), (the right to life) public funding can be made available. We can advise you further in relation to this should you make an inquiry.

Will the Coroner take steps to prevent a similar death from occurring?

Sometimes the inquest will show that something needs to be done to prevent a similar death. The coroner now has a duty to draw attention to this publicly and will write to someone in authority about it, for example the council or a government department.

Will the Inquest appear in the newspapers

All inquests must be held in public and someone from the press is usually present in court. Whether they report the case is a matter for them. At the same time the coroner knows that every death is a personal tragedy and tries to treat each one sympathetically. The inquest tries to get at the truth, and can often help to stop the spread of untrue stories about the death. Suicide notes and personal letters will not be read out unless they have to be, but although every attempt is made to avoid any upset to people's private lives, sometimes, in the interests of justice, it is unavoidable.