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A coroner is an official responsible for investigating deaths, particularly those happening under unusual circumstances, and determining the cause of death. 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.
Many jurisdictions have a coroner or their equivalent. Medical examiner is a frequent alternative title in the United States; however, unlike a coroner, a medical examiner must be a licensed pathologist.
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.
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.
The office was originally created to provide a local official whose primary duty was to protect the financial interest of the crown in criminal proceedings. The coroner was referred to as the "keeper of the king's pleas". Anyone 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.
However, in its current form it dates from the 19th century, and due to widespread dissatisfaction with the legal framework under which coroners operate, it looks likely that the role will be reformed again in the coming years.
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.
The coroner's jurisdiction is now limited to finding the name of the deceased, and the cause of death. When the deceased died an unexpected, violent or unnatural death, the coroner will decide whether to hold a post-mortem and if necessary an inquest. If he or she decides to do so, the most common verdicts which he or she may return 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.
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 will carry out the investigation on his or her behalf and on the basis of that the coroner will decide 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.
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. The exact powers of coroners are determined by state statute laws in the United States.
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.
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 in the same.
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 Virginia Institute of Forensic Science and Medicine only accepts trainees who already have both M.D. and J.D. degrees.)
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 his or her own office with M.E.s and deputy M.E.s on his or her 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 always include determining the time, cause, 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 his or her 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.
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.
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.