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In circumstances where somebody has died unexpectedly, either as a result of an accident or medical treatment or the cause of death is otherwise not clear the matter should be referred to a Coroner.
In those circumstances a death certificate should not be issued nor a burial or cremation take place without the Coroners agreement.
Coroners are appointed by the Lord Chancellor to act in a particular geographic area. The Coroner's administration is undertaken by the area local authority. Most big cities and Counties will have their own Coroner.
A Coroner's job is to discover how, when, in what circumstances the deceased came by his death and if necessary the name of the deceased.
The process normally begins with the instruction of a specialist doctor known as a pathologist to undertake an examination of the body (the post mortem) to establish, if possible, the physical cause of death.
The pathologist will produce a written report setting out the results of the post mortem and indicating, in their opinion, what caused the death.
Sometimes an interim death certificate is issued after the post mortem to allow a burial or cremation.
The Coroner will also investigate the circumstances leading up to the death and will take statements from witnesses and look at documents that will assist in this process.
If the issues are particularly complex or unclear the Coroner can also appoint an independent expert such as a doctor or engineer to provide an opinion on a particular part of the evidence.
Once all the evidence has been gathered the Coroner will then hold a hearing known as an Inquest. The area of law surrounding Inquests has become increasingly complex in recent years largely due to the coming into force of the Human Rights Act 1998 and the incorporation into English law of Article 2 of the European Convention of Human Rights (the Right to Life).
Some or all of the witnesses will be required to attend at the Inquest to give evidence and answer questions.
The Coroner is responsible for asking the questions.
The deceased’s family and others with a valid interest in the proceedings may also attend the Inquest and ask questions of the witnesses either themselves or through a legal representative.
An Inquest may last just an hour or two or many weeks depending on the number of witnesses or interested parties and or the complexity of the circumstances.
Once all the evidence has been heard the Coroner will reach a verdict setting out how, when and why the death occurred.
In certain circumstances (eg. a death in prison or where the deceased was detained in hospital under the Mental Health Act 1983) the Inquest will be held in front of a Jury and the verdict will be delivered by the Jury.
The verdict will allow completion of the death certificate setting out the full cause of death.
In the ordinary course of events it is not the role of the Coroner to establish who might have been to blame for a death.
A number of problems may arise as a result of this process eg:
In all these and any other matters it is important to seek legal advice quickly if you are concerned about the death of a relative or loved one.
We are able to advise you on the legal issues arising from representation at Inquests as well as practical considerations such as how representation could be funded.
In exceptional cases Public Funding (formerly known as legal aid) may be available.