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Investigating death - part two

Continuing problems and further reform

The Coroners Act of 1887 consolidated the laws relating to coroners and emphasised the coroner's role in investigating deaths suspected of being violent or unnatural or which had occured in prison or in certain other places. The Act also banned the holding of inquests in public houses.

The 1887 Act did little to reform basic inefficiencies and, in the 1890s, legal experts - including successive Lord Chancellors - questioned the inquest format. It was felt in many cases, for example, that if a post-mortem had been held earlier in the proceedings, a subsequent inquest might not need to have been held.

The need for a jury was also challenged since its function of ensuring an honest inquiry could not be entrusted to qualified officials.

Some local authorities - notably London County Council - were especially keen for coroners' procedures to be made simpler and cheaper, and lobbied Parliament for change.

Difficulty in finding agreement on these issues delayed further reform until the Coroners (Amendment) Act of 1926. Coroners were at last allowed to order a post-mortem without having to proceed to an inquest in cases where the death was not suspected to be from anything other than natural causes. There was also a new requirement that coroners had to have medical or legal qualifications and not less than five years standing in their profession - previously the requirement had been to be a freeholder (man or property). In addition, the 1926 Act reduced the number of circumstances in which a jury had to be summoned and removed the need for a jury to view the body.

The 1926 Act also required a coroner to adjourn an inquest until the conclusion of indictable criminal proceedings. However, it was not until the 1970s that Parliament provided that inquests were no longer allowed to name and commit for trial a person believed to be guilty of muder or manslaughter - the last such person was Lord Lucan in 1974, who was committed for trial in his absence at the inquest into the death of his nanny.

There were also other reforms to the law relating to coroners in the 20th century. The Coroners Act 1980 removed the need for the coroner to view the body; this Act introduced the concept of the coroner's jurisdiction arising for the presence of the body within the coroner's geographical area. The Coroners Act of 1988 consolidated all previous legislation. This, together with the Coroners Rules 1984, formed the basis of the law until very recently.

Contemporary context: into the 21st century - more reform

Calls for reform of the law relating to coroners continued to be made, including a number of major reports, ultimately resulting in Parliament passing the Coroners and Justice Act 2009. This Act provides for the appointment of a Chief Coroner to give national direction and leadership to a locally delivered service. The first Chief Coroner is His Honour Judge Peter Thornton QC who took up his post in September 2012. The 2009 Act also reformed and updated coronial law more generally - the reforms were largely implemented in July 2013.

The purpose of an inquest continues to be for the coroner to establish who the deceased was, how, where and when the deceased died, and the particulars needed to register the death.



Page last updated 1st May 2014