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Coroner’s Law Made Simple

All sudden and unexplained, violent or unnatural deaths (or where the cause is unknown) must be reported to a Coroner. For legal purposes this will include circumstances where a person dies during an operation or before coming out of anaesthetic, or where the death may have been caused by an industrial disease. Furthermore the Coroner must be notified where a) the decedent was not visited by a doctor during their final illness, b) a medical certificate is not available or c) where the person who has died was not seen by the doctor who signed the medical certificate within 14 days of their death. The Coroner then decides whether a post-mortem and/or an inquest is needed. Inquests must be held if the person died a violent or unnatural death (for example as a result of an assault or an industrial poisoning) or died in prison or police custody (or as the result of police action).

Perhaps one of the most famous inquests in recent history is the one convened in 2008 to inquire into the deaths of Diana, Princess of Wales and Dodi Al Fayed in 1997. Also the original Hillsborough Disaster Inquest (convened in 1990) will almost certainly rank as a close second, if not above, in terms of living memory, when in 1989 more than 90 fans were killed during a match between Nottingham Forest and Liverpool. Both are examples of the rare occasions when inquests have been served by an empanelled jury. Jury inquests (although rare) will however normally be held where the person died in prison or the death occurred in circumstances which may affect the health or safety of the public. It is important to note that an inquest is not a trial – it is an ‘inquiry’ into who has died, where they died and when the death occurred. An inquest does not seek to establish who (if anyone) was to blame for a person’s death.

The verdicts that are available at an inquest are a) natural causes, b) accident, c) suicide, d) unlawful or lawful killing, e) industrial disease or f) open verdict. The ‘Diana Jury’ delivered a verdict that she and Mr Al Fayed had been unlawfully killed, due to the ‘gross negligence’ of their driver’s drunken driving. All verdicts may be challenged by way of judicial review in the High Court. This is what happened in 2012 when the original (1990) Hillsborough Inquest jury’s verdict of ‘accident’ was quashed. The second inquest is still continuing.


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