What is a coroner?


The job of the coroner is to determine the cause - the ‘how, when and where’ - of any sudden or unnatural death.


Where the cause of death isn’t immediately obvious, a coroner must inquire and decide on a cause before the death can be certified. Part judge, part investigator, the coroner examines all unnatural deaths which haven’t obviously been caused in the conduct of a crime: more than one in five of all deaths fall into this category.


In some jurisdictions across the world coroners are also known as ‘medical examiners’. The powers of coroners and medical examiners vary according to local laws.


In England and Wales, the office of coroner first came into being in the year 1281 and has operated uninterrupted to the present day. The coroner has sometimes been termed ‘the people’s judge’, because often it is the only coroner who unearths the true facts of a death after the police and other authorities have failed.


Where there is conflicting or complex evidence about the circumstances of a death, a coroner may hold an inquest. This is a court hearing in which the coroner acts as a judge and also as an inquisitor. Inquests are often held with juries, whose job is to listen to the evidence and decide on the cause of death by returning a verdict.


Coroners’ courts can return several types of verdict. The principal ones are:

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The Coroner by M. R.  Hall
  • Accident – death was caused by accidental circumstances for which no one is to blame

  • Misadventure – death occurred as a direct result of the deceased knowingly engaging in a risky activity

  • Suicide – the deceased took his or her own life

  • Neglect – the deceased was in a position of dependency on others, whose extreme neglect caused his or her death

  • Unlawful killing – the death was a homicide

  • Open – there is insufficient evidence to arrive at a cause of death


Following a verdict, a coroner may report a wrongdoer who has caused a natural death to the prosecuting authorities.


As a direct result of their independence, coroners have succeeded in embarrassing successive governments in their dogged pursuit of the truth. In recent years coroner’s juries have returned verdicts of unlawful killing in cases in which British soldiers have been killed by so-called friendly fire in Afghanistan and Iraq, causing major diplomatic friction between Britain and the USA. The coroner’s inquiry into the death in 1997 of Princess Diana in Paris lasted ten years, and heard evidence that members of the British Royal Family were involved in elaborate conspiracy to murder her. The jury eventually rejected these allegations, but at times it seemed they might not.


Often providing the last hope of justice for the families of the dead, the coroner operates outside the mainstream of the court system, invariably on a tiny budget, and save for the assistance of an investigating officer or two, quite alone.

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