Role of the coroner

A coroner is an independent judicial office holder who acts to investigate the cause and circumstances of violent or unnatural deaths, or sudden deaths of an unknown cause.  Most coroners are lawyers rather than doctors although members of either profession can be appointed.

Coroners are appointed by and paid through the local authority for their district.  However, they are not local authority employees and are independent of both local and central government.

The work of coroners is ultimately overseen by the High Court of England and Wales and the Lord Chancellor.

Senior coroners can appoint area coroners, and in larger districts, assistant coroners to assist them with their substantial workload, and senior members of the judiciary can sometimes be appointed by the coroner for a particular district to deal with particularly complex inquests.

Senior coroners appoint area coroners, and in larger districts, assistant coroners to assist them with their substantial workload. Where senior members of the judiciary are appointed by the coroner for a particular district to deal with particularly complex inquests, they are appointed as an assistant coroner with jurisdiction over the particular inquest(s) in question.

The Rt Hon Sir John Goldring, a former judge of the Court of Appeal, has been appointed as Assistant Coroner for West Yorkshire (West) and South Yorkshire (East) to lead the Hillsborough Inquests.

Inquests by the Coroner’s Court

An inquest is a fact-finding exercise and not a method of apportioning guilt, as would be the case with a criminal trial. An inquest does not have formal parties, an indictment, prosecution or defence teams or a trial; it is simply an attempt to establish the facts.

The purpose of an inquest, conducted by a coroner with or without a jury, is to establish reliable answers to four important but limited factual questions:

  1. the identity of the deceased;
  2. the place of this death;
  3. the time of death; and
  4. how the deceased came to their death.

In most cases the first three questions are not hard to answer. The fourth question is that to which most of the evidence and enquiry usually relates and where there may be significant dispute.

Those with a personal, professional, reputational, or financial interest in the death of the deceased can apply to be involved in proceedings. These interested persons are normally represented by counsel and/or a solicitor during the hearings. With permission of the coroner they may question witnesses and make submissions regarding their view of the facts and the proper progress of the inquest.

The above is provided as a brief summary only, nothing in it should be considered as an authoritative statement of the law. The Coroners Rules 1984, Coroners Act 1988 and Coroners and Justice Act 2009 can be found on www.legislation.gov.uk.