A coroner (the procurator fiscal in Scotland fulfils a similar role) is an independent judicial officer with legal powers working on behalf of the Crown. Most coroners and all procurator fiscals are lawyers but some coroners may be doctors. Coroners officers, who may be civilians or police officers, work under the direction of coroners and liaise with bereaved families, police, doctors and funeral directors.
The coroner's role is to inquire into deaths reported to them which may be unnatural for any reason or of unexpected and unknown cause. Deaths are mainly reported to a coroner by the police, registrars of deaths and doctors. If a member of the public has a concern that a death is unnatural they should contact the police as soon as possible who will notify the coroner.
The first steps in the coroner's enquiries
The coroner or their officer will gather information about the person who has died and the circumstances of their death to determine whether a doctor can issue a medical certificate or whether further investigations are required. If a medical certificate cannot be issued the coroner will usually order a post-mortem examination.
While a coroner is investigating a death it is not possible for a funeral director or anyone else to carry out any preservative work in preparation for the funeral. It is also unwise to book a definite date for the funeral although you can certainly start to plan the ceremony.
If a coroner's post-mortem examination reveals that the death was due to natural causes and that an inquest is not needed, the coroner will release the body. The death can then be registered and the funeral can take place.
Click here for more information about inquests.
More about coroners
Although part of the legal system, coroners are actually employed by local authorities (councils). The council usually also employs the coroner's officers and any other staff but in some areas they are employed by the local police force. This does not alter how coroners officers carry out their day to day duties.
Most enquiries are carried out by coroner's officers and it will be a coroner's officer who contacts a bereaved family to find out more information about someone who has died. The officer will inform a family if a post-mortem is needed and when it will take place and afterwards they will contact the family to inform them of the findings. Ask the coroners officer for advice about planning a date for the funeral and also tell them if you have any concerns about the cause of death or care given.