Who are coroners?
Her Majesty's Coroners are independent judicial officers in England and Wales. They are appointed and financed by local authorities but are not employed by them. Although local authorities have some control in financial matters, they have none over coroners' decisions. In practice, coroners are accountable to the High Court and to the Lord Chancellor. Coroners and their deputies must be either lawyers or medical practitioners of at least five years' standing, and each has the same powers to hold inquests.
Her Majesty's Coroner for the Southern District of Greater London, comprising the four London boroughs of Bexley, Bromley, Croydon and Sutton is Miss Ormond-Walshe.
What do coroners do?
Coroners must inquire into deaths reported to them if the death was violent, unnatural, or sudden and of unknown cause, or if the person died in prison, police custody or similar circumstances.
A coroner normally has jurisdiction relating to a death only if the body is physically in their district. It doesn't matter where the death occurred, but where the body is now. The coroner may have to inquire into deaths that occurred abroad if the body is returned to England. However, if a body is cremated abroad, there is no need to hold an inquest if only cremated remains are brought back. If someone dies in England but the body is to be taken abroad, the coroner must be informed so that an "Out of England" certificate can be issued.
What is the role of the coroner?
When someone dies the death has to be registered. If a registered medical practitioner is able to sign a medical certificate of the cause of death in a form acceptable to the Registrar of Deaths (giving a medical cause that is regarded as 'natural'), the death will usually be registered and there will be no referral to HM Coroner. In all other circumstances, the death will be reported to the coroner, either by the Registrar of Deaths or by others, such as a doctor, police officer or family member.
A Coroner's inquest is an inquiry, held in public in open court, to which witnesses are called to give evidence about the death in question. It is not a trial; no-one is on trial in a coroner's court. Inquests do not establish if anyone was at fault or to blame for deaths. Matters of blame or fault can only be pursued in separate civil or criminal proceedings. At the end of an inquest, the coroner may report the facts to an appropriate authority which may have power to prevent similar fatalities in future, but they cannot make recommendations or compel the authority to do anything. Some people - such as those who have an emotional or financial interest in the death - are allowed, as 'interested persons', not only to attend the hearing but also to take part in the enquiry by asking relevant questions of the witnesses, either themselves or through a lawyer.
In addition to holding inquests into certain kinds of deaths, a coroner holds inquests into any treasure found in their district. The Treasure Act of 1996 widened the scope of 'treasure' to include categories such as coins and other objects as well as gold and silver objects.
Contact with HM Coroner should first be made through the relevant coroner's officer. Office hours are normally 8am to 4pm, Monday to Friday. Outside usual office hours, violent, unnatural and sudden, unexpected deaths should be reported through any police officer or hospital switchboard, which will have details of how to contact the on-call coroner's officer.