The fascinating role of a county coroner
Morpeth Rotary Club
Brian Gallon was Coroner for South Northumberland and North Tyneside for 27 years.
He was Deputy for two years and started as Coroner in 1976.
The office was first created in 1194 in the reign of King Richard I, ‘Lion Heart’. He spent most of his time away from Britain at the Crusades and did not even speak English. He was captured on his way back and ransomed for the vast sum of 150,000 marks.
This money was to be paid by taxpayers who were already heavily taxed. The tax system at the time was for the local county sheriffs to collect and pay the money to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, but corruption was rife and not all of the money got to the chancellor.
The Archbishop of Canterbury Hubert Walter proposed that each shire should elect three knights as coroners and a clerk to collect the money instead of the sheriffs. The public preferred election to corrupt appointment.
Coroners were elected from then until 1888, after which time they were employed by each county council.
When Brian started his career coroners could only be chosen from qualified lawyers or doctors who had practiced for five years. A recent change in the law means that only lawyers may be appointed.
Some counties have one coroner, Cumbria used to have four, and Lincolnshire had five.
Northumberland has two coroners, with the River Wansbeck as the dividing line up to the Scottish Border at Chew Green. Both Northumberland coroners are part-time.
Scotland does not have coroners.
Most deaths are not reported to a coroner as a doctor certifies a natural death, but they may only do this where they are certain the death is by natural causes.
The coroner is involved where there is reasonable cause to expect that the deceased has met a violent or unnatural end, but he has no jurisdiction until ‘informed’ that a body is lying within his district.
All deaths in prison or a police custody suite must be referred to a coroner and an inquest required.
Acts of Parliament specify other circumstances where an inquest must be held, including deaths on the railway, at work, by industrial disease, within 24 hours of admission to a hospital, and following operations.
Inquests must be carried out as soon as possible, with or without a jury.
When a death is reported to a coroner, usually by a doctor or the police, an investigation is carried out by the Coroner’s Office. They will arrange to talk to relatives, staff at a care home and a doctor, and, if all agree, a death can be confirmed as natural.
A coroner can have a post-mortem carried out by a pathologist.
If the death is natural, it will be registered and a funeral can take place. If it is not natural, the coroner opens an inquest, which can be adjourned to make enquiries, then completed later.
An inquest is a limited fact-finding exercise about how a death came to happen. It is not a trial and will not establish blame.
If at some point a person is charged with causing the death, the inquest is postponed until the trial is completed. After an inquest has been adjourned, it is at the coroner’s discretion whether to resume or not as all facts may have come out during a trial.
Proceedings can be brought about by a factory inspector, where the inquest has precedence, and then enquiries follow.
Most inquests have no jury, although a jury is required in certain circumstances. The coroner decides what witnesses are called. Anyone who wants to give evidence will make a statement to the coroner in advance.
Possible verdicts include: Natural Death; Suicide; Misadventure; Death by Industrial Disease; Death by Dangerous Driving; and Open Verdict. An Open Verdict is where the evidence does not tell you how a person died, such as a body found in a river.
Since 2004 it has also been possible to have a Narrative Verdict, which gives a jury the opportunity to explain their findings based on the evidence, as happened in the case of the death of Diana, Princess of Wales.
Sometimes the findings of an inquest shows a state of affairs where some action should be taken.
The coroner can issue a Section 47 Notice to a local government department, for example, where a road death has been affected by the layout of a road junction. By law the local authority must discuss the issue, make a decision about it and communicate the decision to the coroner.
The work is not all about death. Another duty is to do with hidden treasure.
Treasure can be defined as items of gold and silver, not normally base metal, and finders must report this to a coroner within 14 days. Having the route of the Roman Wall in his patch gave a greater chance of treasure inquests.
Treasure must have been deliberately concealed with the intention of retrieval later, not just lost. Expert advice is called.
In one case it was decided that the place where coins had been found had been a Roman Age shop.
If declared treasure then the owner must offer it for sale to a museum at a price decided independently.
Rotary member Simon Foley thanked the speaker.
New Rotary member Professor Mark Thomas was welcomed into the club.