coroner

coroner

[kawr-uh-ner, kor-]
coroner, judicial officer responsible for investigating deaths occurring through violence or under suspicious circumstances. The office has been traced to the late 12th cent. Originally the coroner's duties were primarily to maintain records of criminal justice and to take custody of all royal property. In England this second function persists in his jurisdiction over treasure-trove. In his present-day work of determining cause of death, the coroner proceeds by means of the inquest whenever there is doubt. In several of the United States the coroner has been replaced by the medical examiner, who can only conduct post-mortem examinations, and who works in cooperation with the public prosecutor.

Public official whose principal duty is to inquire into any death that appears to be unnatural. The name of the office as it emerged in England in the late 12th century was originally “crowner” (also called “coronator”), a reference to the coroner's principal duty of protecting the crown's property. By the late 19th century, the coroner's role had shifted to that of conducting inquests into unnatural deaths. In Canada, all coroners are appointed. In the U.S., the office is elective or appointive, depending on the jurisdiction. Coroners often possess both legal and medical qualifications, but the office is sometimes filled by laypersons, including undertakers, sheriffs, and justices of the peace. In many states the office has been replaced by that of the medical examiner, who is usually a licensed pathologist.

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A coroner is an official responsible for investigating deaths, particularly some of those happening under unusual circumstances, and determining the cause of death. The additional roles and qualifications of the coroner vary significantly not only by country but by jurisdiction.

Depending on the jurisdiction, the coroner may adjudge the cause himself, or act as the presiding officer of a special court (a "coroner's jury"). In some countries, coroners have additional investigatory roles. For example, in the United Kingdom under the Treasure Act 1996 a coroner will determine the most likely manner in which treasure came to be in the place where it was found (whether it was lost or hidden) which will determine the legal entitlements to the treasure trove.

A coroner is not necessarily a medical examiner. Medical examiners are medical doctors who have specialised in anatomical- or forensic pathology. In the UK however, all one needs is a medical degree, plus additional training in the law, thus a coroner need not necessarily be a qualified pathologist themselves. Additionally some UK coroners will not have formal medical qualifications but will instead be members of the legal profession. In countries such as the US, where the coroner is an elected, political position, a coroner need not be a medical examiner, though many are. In other areas, including certain Canadian provinces, all the roles of the coroner are assigned to the medical examiner.

Australia

Coroners in Australia derive their authority and functions from the ancient English office. The office of coroner came to Australia in the First Fleet with Governor Arthur Phillip having the authority to act as a coroner and appoint coroners as necessary.

In all states and territories of Australia, the office of coroner continues to this day.

See also: Coroner's Court of New South Wales, Coroner's Court of Western Australia.

Canada

In Canada, coroners (or their equivalent) are responsible for the investigation of all unnatural, sudden, unexpected, unexplained or unattended deaths. They make and offer recommendations to improve public safety and prevention of death in similar circumstances.

Coroners in Canada are under the jurisdiction of Provincial or Territorial Ministries of Public Security (formerly Solicitor General) or Justice. The Chief Coroner (or Chief Medical Examiner) is appointed

Most coroners in Canada are medical doctors with a few exceptions. British Columbia's former coroner Larry Campbell was not a medical doctor, but a police officer.

England and Wales

In England and Wales a coroner is a judicial officer appointed and paid for by the local authority. The coronial system is under the control of the Ministry of Justice, which is headed by the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice.

History

The post of coroner is ancient, dating from approximately the 11th century, shortly after the Norman conquest of England in 1066.

The office of Coroner was formally established in England by Article 20 of the "Articles of Eyre" in September 1194 to "keep the pleas of the Crown" or in Latin "custos placitorum coronas" from which the word "coroner" is derived. This role provided a local county official whose primary duty was to protect the financial interest of the crown in criminal proceedings. The office of coroner is, "in many instances, a necessary substitute: for if the sheriff is interested in a suit, or if he is of affinity with one of the parties to a suit, the coroner must execute and return the process of the courts of justice. This role was qualified in Chapter 24 of Magna Carta in 1215 which states: "No sheriff, constable, coroner or bailiff shall hold pleas of our Crown". "Keeping the pleas" was an administrative task, while "holding the pleas" was a judicial one which was not assigned to the locally resident coroner but left to judges who travelled around the country holding Assize Courts. The role of Custos rotulorum or keeper of the county records became an independent office which after 1836 was held by the Lord Lieutenant of each county.

The person who found a body whose death was thought to be sudden or unnatural was required to raise the "hue and cry" and to notify the coroner.

Coroners were introduced into Wales following its military conquest by Edward I of England in 1282 through the Statute of Rhuddlan in 1284.

Qualification

To become a coroner in England and Wales the applicant must be a lawyer (solicitor/barrister) or doctor of at least five years standing. This reflects the role of a coroner, to determine the cause of death of a deceased in cases where the death was sudden, unexpected, occurred abroad, was suspicious in any way or happened while the person was under the control of central authority (e.g., in police cells).

Aside from the usual coroners, certain persons are ex officio coroners in limited circumstances—for example the Lord Chancellor has been historically allowed to certify the death of someone killed in rebellion.

Inquest

The coroner's jurisdiction is limited to finding the name of the deceased and the cause of death. When the death was unexpected, violent or unnatural, the coroner will decide whether to hold a post-mortem and, if necessary, an inquest. The most common verdicts include: death by misadventure, accidental death, unlawful killing, lawful killing, suicide, natural causes, an open verdict or a narrative verdict. The coroner's former power to name a suspect for trial upon inquisition has been abolished. The coroner's verdict will sometimes be persuasive for the police and Crown Prosecution Service, but normally proceedings in the coroner's court are suspended until after the final outcome of any criminal case is known. More usually, a coroner's verdict will also frequently be relied upon in civil proceedings and insurance claims.

"Lawful killing" includes lawful self-defence, or where a doctor lawfully administers a painkiller from which the patient dies.

Jurisdiction

Any person aware of a dead body lying in the district of a coroner has a duty to report it to the coroner; failure to do so is an offence. This can include bodies brought into England or Wales (for example, when there is a death in the military abroad the body is returned to RAF Brize Norton and so is dealt with by Oxfordshire Coroners Court). The coroner has a team of Coroners Officers (previously often an ex-policeman but often now from a nursing or other paramedical background) who carry out the investigation on the coroner's behalf. On the basis of the investigation, the coroner decides whether an inquest is appropriate. When a person dies in the custody of the legal authorities (in police cells, or in prison), an inquest must be held. In England, inquests are usually heard without a jury (unless the coroner wants one). However, a case in which a person has died under the control of central authority must have a jury, as a check on the possible abuse of governmental power.

The coroner's court is a court of law, and accordingly the coroner may summon witnesses, and people found to be lying are guilty of perjury.

Additional powers of the coroner may include the power of subpoena and attachment, the power of arrest, the power to administer oaths, and sequester juries of six during inquests.

Coroners also have a role in treasure trove cases. This role arose from the ancient duty of the coroner as a protector of the property of The Crown. It is now contained in the Treasure Act 1996.

Hong Kong

The Coroner's Court is responsible to inquire into the causes and circumstances of certain deaths. The Coroner is a judicial officer who has the power to:

  • grant burial orders
  • grant cremation orders
  • grant waivers of autopsy
  • grant autopsy orders
  • grant exhumation orders
  • grant orders to remove dead bodies outside Hong Kong
  • order police investigations of death
  • order inquests to be held
  • approve removal and use of body parts of the dead body
  • issue certificates of fact of death

The Coroner makes orders after considering the pathologist's report.

United States

Coroners in the United States are usually county-level officers, are often elected (rather than appointed) officials, and usually do not need to hold any medical qualification. As finders of fact, they retain quasi-judicial powers such as the power of subpoena, and in some states they also have the power to impanel juries of inquest, but unlike their British equivalents, they are not judicial officers, instead considered to be executive branch officials.

In some states the coroner and the sheriff are one and the same. In some counties, the coroner is the only person with the power to arrest the sheriff.

Many jurisdictions have replaced the elected coroner with a Medical Examiner (often referred to by the initials "M.E."), who must be a physician, and is most often a specialist in pathology or forensic medicine. In some jurisdictions, a medical examiner must be both a doctor and a lawyer.

The medical examiner is most often an appointed official. This has been part of a move toward professionalizing a job increasingly involved with advanced scientific techniques. In larger cities (for instance, New York City) and more populous counties, the post may be that of "chief medical examiner", heading an office with M.E.s and deputy M.E.s on staff to handle individual cases.

Other jurisdictions, such as Monterey County, California, have merged the legal competencies of a coroner into the office of the Sheriff, whose medical duties as coroner are then delegated to a professional forensic staff of medical examiners, technicians, and such.

Duties

Duties always include determining the cause, time, and manner of death. This uses the same investigatory skills of a police detective in most cases, because the answers are available from the circumstances, scene, and recent medical records. In many American jurisdictions any death not certified by the person's own physician must be referred to the medical examiner. If an individual dies outside of their state of residence, the coroner of the state in which the death took place issues the death certificate. Only a small percentage of deaths require an autopsy to determine the time, cause and manner of death.

In some states, additional functions are handled by the coroner. For example, in Louisiana, coroners are involved in determination of mental illness of living persons. In Georgia, the coroner has the same powers as a county sheriff to execute arrest warrants and serve process, and in certain situations where there is no sheriff (described in Title 15, Chapter 16, Section 8 of Georgia law), they officially act as sheriff for the county. In Kentucky, section 72.415 of the Kentucky Revised Statutes gives coroners and their deputies the full power and authority of peace officers. This includes the power of arrest and the authority to carry firearms.

Other jurisdictions

Other jurisdictions combine the role of coroner with that of public prosecutor such as procurators fiscal in Scotland who have a duty in certifying all deaths in Scotland.

Artistic depictions

Although coroners are often depicted in police dramas as a source of information for detectives, there are a number of fictional coroners who have taken particular focus on television. The television series' Quincy, M.E., its Canadian ancestor Wojeck, and Da Vinci's Inquest each have a coroner as their title character. In addition, the coroner is a significant character on CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, and the lead character in Crossing Jordan is a Medical Examiner.

Dr. G: Medical Examiner is a reality television show shown on the Discovery Health Channel that shows dramatic reenactments of autopsies performed by real-life medical examiner Dr. Jan Garavaglia. The shows also include interviews with Dr. Garavaglia, family members, and others connected with the cases she has worked on in Florida and Texas.

Patricia Cornwell is a crime novelist well known for her creation of Dr Kay Scarpetta, a Medical Examiner.

Bernard Knight, a former Home Office Pathologist and Professor of Forensic Pathology at the University of Wales College of Medicine is well known for his Crowner (Coroner) John Mysteries series set in 12th century Devon.

See also

References

External links

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