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Death by Misadventure or Lawful Killing? The Modern Coroner’s Court

Coroners are required to seek the answers to 4 important questions. How, why, where and when did the decedent die? In certain circumstances, he may open an inquest and also impanel a jury. He must always do both if the death occurred in prison or police custody. The post is always held by lawyers or doctors and it dates from the 11th century, although not formally established until 1194. There is a legal duty to notify the Coroner if a death is suspected to be sudden or unnatural. This obviously includes violent deaths and unlawful killings. A famous notable example is the inquest following Princess Diana’s death. A recent notable example is the Hillsborough Inquest. High profile inquests have also been opened where soldiers have been killed on active service and criminal suspects have been shot by armed police officers. The Coroner is assisted by officers who carry out investigations on his behalf. Typically they interview relatives and possible witnesses and obtain reports from relevant professionals. Also pathologists may be required to carry out a post mortem and submit a report to the Coroner. The Coroner’s role is an important one, in modern society, as sometimes it is only he or she who stands between justice and the excesses of the State or powerful commercial enterprises. Although inquests are normally suspended until after the outcome of a criminal trial, a Coroner’s verdict may sometimes be used to start criminal proceedings. More commonly they are used to support claims in civil proceedings or in relation to contested insurance claims. Any attempt to curb the Coroner’s current powers would certainly be a case of death by misadventure!


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