The Coroner’s Role

Her Majesty’s Coroner for Inner North London

A coroner is an independent judicial office holder acting to investigate the cause and circumstances of violent or unnatural deaths, or sudden deaths of an unknown cause. Most coroners are lawyers rather than doctors, although members of either profession can be appointed.

Coroners are appointed by and paid via the local authority for their district, but they are not local authority employees and are independent of both local and central government.

Coroners work is ultimately overseen by the High Court of England and Wales and the Lord Chancellor.

Her Majesty’s Deputy or Assistant Deputy Coroners

Coroners appoint Deputy Coroners, and in larger districts, Assistant Deputy Coroners to assist them with their workload, which is substantial. Where senior members of the judiciary are appointed by the Coroner for a particular district to deal with particularly complex inquests, they are appointed as the Coroner’s Deputy or Assistant Deputy with jurisdiction over the particular inquest(s) in question.

As a member of the senior judiciary, a High Court Judge, Sir Robert Owen, has been appointed as Assistant Deputy Coroner for Inner North London to lead the Litvinenko Inquest. The Inquest was generally adjourned for nearly 5 years while there was thought to be a prospect of criminal proceedings being brought. By the time of the pre-inquest review held by the Coroner for Inner North London, Dr Andrew Reid, in October 2011, it was clear that no criminal prosecutions would be brought because the two men suspected by police of murdering Mr Litvinenko are outside the UK.

Inquests by the Coroner’s Court

An inquest is a fact-finding exercise and not a method of apportioning guilt, as would be the case with a criminal trial. In an inquest, there are no parties, no indictment, no prosecution, no defence, and no trial; simply an attempt to establish the facts.

An Inquest is an inquisitorial process, a process of investigation unlike a traditional adversarial trial, there is no prosecution or defence. It is a fact-finding inquiry conducted by a coroner, with or without a jury, to establish reliable answers to four important but limited factual questions:

  1. the identity of the deceased,
  2. the place of this death,
  3. the time of death,
  4. and, how the deceased came to their death.

In most cases the first three questions are not hard to answer. The fourth question is that to which most of the evidence and enquiry is usually directed, and where there may be significant dispute.

Those with a personal, professional, reputational, or financial interest in the death of the deceased can apply to be involved in proceedings. These Interested Persons, which can be natural or legal persons (corporations), are normally represented by counsel and/or a solicitor during the hearings. With permission of the coroner they may question witnesses and make submissions regarding their view of the facts and the proper progress of the inquest.

The above is provided as a brief summary only, nothing in it should be considered as an authoritative statement of the law. The Coroners Rules 1984, Coroners Act 1988 and Coroners and Justice Act 2009 (only partially in force) can be found on www.legislation.gov.uk.