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Investigating death

It has long been a basic concern of society to discover the cause of any unnatural or unexplained death and to investigate whether criminality is involved. The task of carrying out these investigations has for centuries been undertaken by an official known as a coroner.

The early coroners

The post is thought to have been formally established by the King's Council in 1194, though coroners existed before then. The responsibility for holding inquests when people died unnaturally was just one of a wide range of local administrative duties performed by the coroner. The coroner had both financial and judicial responsibilities.  

The role of coroners was further clarified in the Magna Carta of 1215, and Parliament for the first time defined their duties in the Statute of Coroners of 1276. This set down in some detail the procedure coroners should follow in examining the condition of a dead body, including the careful noting of any marks and the precise measurement of any wound.  

The coroner was elected by a body of freeholders.

By the early 16th century many of the coroners' minor administrative duties had passed to local justices of the peace, leaving the investigation of unexplained deaths as their main responsibility. 

Following a wave of petitions from coroners in the late 1740s, an Act was passed in 1751 which established a uniform fee system.

During the inquest it was considered essential for both the coroner and the jurymen to pay the closest attention to the body itself and any evidence it might yield.

19th Century reform of coroners' inquests

During the 19th century coroners' procedures struggled to keep pace with the pressures of urbanisation, industrialisation and a growing population.

In central London the number of verdicts of suicide, accidental death and infanticide rose particularly fast in the period 1835-65.

The growth of more sophisticated medical investigation techniques was recognised by Parliament in its Coroners Act of 1836. This empowered coroners to summon medical witnesses to an inquest and, if necessary, to carry out a post-mortem.

The steep increase in sudden deaths reported to the coroners by 1850 meant that some local magistrates were forced to restrict the number of inquests - because of mounting costs.

At the same time, however, there was public alarm over the perceived rise in the number of deaths by poisoning. Responding to this panic in 1860, Parliament passed the County Coroners Act, which acknowledged the need to improve the status of coroners in line with other public professionals, and stressed the importance of inquest procedure. For the first time coroners were to receive a proper salary rather than a fee.

The Local Government Act of 1888 finally abolished the election of coroners and provided that they were to be appointed by local authorities.

Find out more about the further reforms and the continuing problems...



Page last updated 1st May 2014