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12 July 2014

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What is a Coroner's investigation and what is a Coroner's inquest?

Coroner's Investigation

If the cause cause of death is unclear and/or just requires a bit more looking into, the Coroner will open an investigation into the death. For example, a post mortem has been done, but the pathologist cannot determine a cause of death at this stage without doing further histological or toxicological examinations. Those examinations take some time (sometimes several months) and in order to enable the family to do all the arrangements (funeral etc) the Coroner will formally open an investigation. So the funeral can than go ahead as soon as the investigation has been opened, even though a cause of death has not been established, as we have everything we need from the physical body to establish the cause of death.

What does the Coroner's office do in an investigation?

Actually, not a lot. In the majority of cases, we quite simply wait for the pathologist to give us the final cause of death. Sometimes we request hospital records or similar if needed.

Once the result come back, and depending on the results, the Coroner will than either discontinue the investigation or the case will progress to inquest (an actual court hearing).

Examples of investigations

1. 25 year old man get found deceased at his home address  Post mortem does not find an obvious cause of death. Even though the man was not a known drug taker, white powder is found on the table.
In this case, toxicology testing will be done.
If the tox comes back positive, the case will progress to inquest. If it is negative, the investigation will be discontinued.

2. An 85 year old man has died in hospital and the hospital has signed the death certificate as natural. The family than call the coroner and submit evidence which suggests the man was neglected in hospital and died possibly as the result of malnutrition.
In this case, if the body has already been cremated / buried, the Coroner will probably call for hospital records and obtain statements from the doctors and nurses who treated the man in hospital.

Coroner's inquest

An inquest is 'a step up' from an investigation. An inquest is a legal process, a court hearing to establish four facts: who died, when did they die, where did they die, how did they die. This is purely facts, no one gets found guilty or not guilty, there is no defendant and no prosecution. 

An inquest will be heard when the death is unnatural or the cause of death is unknown, even after investigation. 

Every inquest is heard in open court- this means that everyone can attend. Yes, even anyone walking past in the street right now can just pop in and sit in court. Cameras are not allowed in court. Not every inquest has 'life' witnesses, some may be 'all read' only - this depends on the complexity of the case and what the family etc feel about it. 

At the end of an inquest, the Coroner will give his 'record of the inquest, and that verdict contains exactly the answer to those 4 questions I mentioned earlier. It will also contain a short form verdict - this is generally known as 'the verdict' i.e. accidental death. 

Here is an example of a verdict (completely fictional) 
1. Who died: 
Mr Joe Bloggs, date of birth: 01.01.1950, born in London, single, by occupation a taxi driver, lived at an address in Elms Avenue, London E2

2. When died he die:
20 January 2014 at 2015 hrs

3. Where did he die: 
his home address

4. How did he die:
On 20 January 2014 at his home address, Mr Bloggs fell down the stairs and sustained a severe head injury. Toxicology testing found that he was not intoxicated.
Accidental Death. 

I will explain the different Coroner's verdicts in a different post.