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Coroners - sudden death investigations

Coroners inquire into deaths that appear to be violent, unnatural or of sudden and unknown causes.

What does a coroner do?

A coroner is an independent judicial office holder, appointed by a local council. Coroners usually have a legal background but will also be familiar with medical terminology.

Coroners investigate deaths that have been reported to them if it appears that:

  • The death was violent or unnatural;
  • The cause of death is unknown; or
  • The person died in prison, police custody, or another type of state detention.

In these cases coroners must investigate to find out, for the benefit of bereaved people and for official records, who has died and how, when and where they died.

Post-mortem examination

If a coroner decides that an investigation is necessary, a pathologist will normally carry out a post-mortem examination of the body.

The coroner must release the body as soon as possible, after which you can arrange the funeral.

You should let the coroner know in writing if you wish to take the body abroad (including to Scotland and Northern Ireland).

If the post-mortem examination shows the cause of death, the coroner will send a form to the registrar of births and deaths stating the cause of death. You can then make an appointment to register the death.

Inquest

If it was not possible to find out the cause of death from the post-mortem examination, or the death is found to be unnatural, the coroner has to hold an inquest. An inquest is a public court hearing held by the coroner in order to establish who died and how, where and when the death occurred.

The inquest will be held as soon as possible and normally within six months of the death if at all possible. The coroner will let you know if more time is needed and what to expect in your case.

If the death occurred in prison or custody, or if it resulted from an accident at work, there will usually be a jury at the inquest.

At the end of the inquest

The coroner (or jury where there is one) comes to a conclusion at the end of an inquest. This includes the legal 'determination', which states who died and where, when and how they died. The coroner or jury also makes 'findings' to allow the cause of death to be registered. When recording the cause the coroner or jury may use one of the following terms:

  • Accident or misadventure
  • Alcohol / drug related
  • Industrial disease
  • Lawful killing
  • Unlawful killing
  • Natural causes
  • Open
  • Road traffic collision
  • Stillbirth
  • Suicide

The coroner or jury may also make a brief 'narrative' conclusion setting out the facts surrounding the death in more detail and explaining the reasons for the decision.

After the inquest is concluded the coroner will send a form to the registrar. The registrar will then register the death based on the coroner's findings. This is done without you needing to visit the register office. However, you will need to contact the register office if you require copies of the death certificate.

Taking the body abroad or bringing it back to this country

If you wish to take the body abroad, you must give written notice to the coroner, who will tell you within four days whether further enquiries are needed.

If you wish to bring the body back to England or Wales, the coroner may need to be involved. In certain circumstances, an inquest may be necessary. You can ask for advice from your local coroner's office.

Reporting treasure finds to the coroner

Coroners also deal with finds that may be classed as treasure.

Coroners - sudden death investigations - frequently asked questions

This page was last updated on 14 November 2016