What is a coroner?
A coroner is a government official appointed by local councils to investigate certain deaths. This is usually where the cause is unknown, or where there is reason to think the death may not be due to natural causes. Coroners work independently, holding qualifications and experience as a barrister or solicitor and/or a medical doctor.
What does a coroner do?
It is the coroner’s role to determine who the deceased was and the circumstances of their death, for the purpose of official records as well as the benefit of the bereaved. Coroners investigate all deaths where the cause is unknown, thought to be unnatural, or where an inquiry is needed for another reason. A coroner’s investigation will take place when:
- A death is sudden, violent or unexpected
- The person passed away in prison or custody
- The identity of the person is unknown
- A criminal offence is suspected in relation to the death
- A death occurred during or soon after a hospital procedure (e.g. surgery)
- A Medical Certificate of Cause of Death (MCCD) is unavailable
- It was over 14 days since the deceased was last seen by a doctor
Deaths are usually reported to the coroner by the police, registrars or medical doctors.
A coroner will investigate each death on an individual basis, considering the personal circumstances surrounding the case. This process may be as simple as consulting with the doctor or registrar who treated the person before they passed away, or a post-mortem examination may be needed. In some cases, the coroner may open an inquest, which is a judicial inquiry into the circumstances surrounding death.
How long does a coroner's investigation take?
A coroner’s investigation takes between 4 and 12 weeks. The aim of a coroner’s investigation is to gather evidence to answer any questions that each case presents and determine whether a doctor can issue a medical certificate or whether further investigations are required. If a medical certificate cannot be issued, the coroner will order a post-mortem examination.
As soon as all results of the investigation have been collated, an officer will contact you. If it is confirmed that the death was due to natural causes, the case will be closed and the coroner will issue a certificate that states that a post-mortem examination is not needed. You will then be able to register the death at the Register Office and obtain a death certificate for the person who has passed away.
What happens in a post-mortem investigation?
If the cause of death is not obvious, or the death was not from natural causes the coroner will order a post-mortem examination to determine the cause of death.
A post-mortem is the examination of a body after death. Also known as an autopsy, the aim of a post-mortem examination is to determine the cause of death. Post-mortems are carried out by pathologists who provide useful information to coroners about how, when and why someone died, as well as whether an inquest is needed.
During a post-mortem, pathologists may require samples of body tissue and organs to establish what caused the death. If this is the case, you will be asked to give your written consent agreeing for this to happen. Once the post-mortem is complete, the pathologist will report their findings to the coroner, to establish whether the case will be closed, or whether an inquest is needed.
You cannot object to a coroner’s post-mortem, but if you’ve asked for information, the coroner must tell you (and the deceased’s GP) when and where the examination will take place.
After the post-mortem, the coroner will release the body for a funeral, if no further examinations are needed. If the body is released with no inquest, the coroner will issue a form to the registrar stating the cause of death. The coroner will also send a ‘Certificate of coroner – form Cremation 6’ if the body is to be cremated.
What is an inquest?
If a post-mortem examination indicates that a death occurred due to violent or unnatural causes or the cause of death is still unknown following the post-mortem an inquest will be held. There are also circumstances 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.
An inquest is a fact-finding legal investigation that is open to the public and designed to review the evidence (relevant documents, statements and reports) to determine how the person died. An inquest is not used to establish blame and the verdict will not classify someone as having criminal or civil liability. Most inquests will take place within 6 months of the death.
You will not be able to register the death of a loved one until after the inquest has taken place. The coroner is responsible for sending the relevant paperwork to the registrar.
Although the death cannot be registered until after the inquest has taken place, the coroner can provide you with an interim death certificate to prove your loved one has passed away. You can use an interim death certificate if you wish to notify relevant organisations about the passing of the individual, or apply for probate. A funeral cannot take place until the coroner’s inquest has been completed and a cause of death is established, which may mean there are delays in arranging a funeral.
What happens in Scotland?
In Scotland, sudden or unexpected deaths are investigated privately by the procurator fiscal. Only certain types of death are reported to Fatal Accidents Inquiries. There is no system of coroner’s inquests.
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