What is a coroner?

One will have undoubtedly heard reference to coroners in TV shows relating to murders being investigated by grey-haired policemen in an area plagued by suspicious deaths.

A coroner is an independent judicial officer who deals with matters relating to deaths that might require further investigation to establish the cause of death.

What does a coroner do?

A coroner enquires into deaths that appear to be:-

  • Unexpected or unexplained;
  • As a result of violence;
  • An accident;
  • As a result of negligence;
  • From any cause other than natural illness or disease;
  • In circumstances that require investigation.

Not every death requires a post-mortem examination. However on occasion a coroner will seek to establish the cause of death and he or she may well order a post-mortem examination, obtain witness statements and medical records or hold an inquest.

A recent statistic revealed that on average 150,000 people die in Northern Ireland in any one year.  Not all deaths are reported to the coroner because in most cases a GP or a hospital doctor can certify the medical cause of death and the Registrar of Births, Deaths and Marriages can register the death in the usual way.  However, if a doctor has not seen or treated the deceased for the condition which they died within 28 days of death, or the death occurred in a way listed above then the death should be reported to the coroner. It is important to note that the death can be reported to the coroner by the Registrar of Deaths, a funeral director or any member of the public. If a death occurs in a prison then the death would always be reported to the coroner.

It is not always the case that a post-mortem examination is ordered by the coroner but if he/she does order a post-mortem examination the coroner will notify the relatives of the need via the police unless this is not practicable or would unduly delay the examination.  Consent of the next of kin is not required for a post-mortem examination.  The next of kin can be represented at the examination by a doctor of their choice.  If a death has been reported to the coroner, funeral arrangements should not be finalised until the coroner’s permission to release the body is received.  If a post-mortem examination is ordered, or an inquest may be held, then the death cannot be registered until the coroner’s investigation has been completed.  A death certificate cannot be issued until the Registrar of Deaths has the appropriate certificate from the coroner.