When a death is unexpected (sudden death), violent or unnatural, the cause of death is unknown or the person has died whilst detained in police custody/prison/detention centre, it is always referred to the Coroner who will determine if an investigation is necessary.
The majority of deaths notified to the coroner are completely natural, but it is a legal requirement in England & Wales and Northern Ireland that the cause of death is known and recorded.
Usually the coroner will speak to the nearest relative or their representative, as well as any doctors who have been looking after the person who has died, before deciding if a post-mortem examination is necessary.
Inquests & Coroners
Normally a pathologist will carry out a post-mortem examination of the body.
The coroner must release the body as soon as possible, after which you can arrange the funeral.
You should let the coroner know in writing if you wish to take the body abroad (including to Scotland and Northern Ireland).
If the post-mortem examination shows the cause of death, the coroner will send a form to the Registrar of Births and Deaths stating the cause of death. You can then make an appointment to register the death.
If it was not possible to find out the cause of death from the post-mortem examination, or the death is found to be unnatural, the coroner has to hold an inquest. An inquest is a public court hearing held by the coroner in order to establish who died and how, when and where the death occurred.
The inquest will be held as soon as possible and normally within 6 months of the death if at all possible. The coroner will let you know if more time is needed and what to expect in your case.
If the death occurred in prison or custody, or if it resulted from an accident at work, there will usually be a jury at the inquest.
The coroner (or jury where there is one) comes to a conclusion at the end of an inquest. This includes the legal ‘determination’, which states who died, and where, when and how they died. The coroner or jury also makes ‘findings’ to allow the cause of death to be registered.
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