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"All That Remains"

When it comes to post-mortem examinations, inquiries and inquests, the role of the coroner is an intricate and complex one as explained here by Dublin City Coroner Dr Brian J. Farrell

Coroners are officials with responsiblilty under the law for the investigation of sudden, unexplained and unnatural deaths. Coroners are appointed by the Local Authority on the recommendation of the Local Appointmens Commission following open competition, and the coroner system is subject to the general supervision of the Minster for Jutsice. A coroner is, however, independent in his/her function acting in the name of, or on behalf of the State in the public interest. A coroner is not an officer of the Local Authority. Although the office has important medical functions it is in fact, a legal office.

Similar medico-legal systems for death investigation exist in other comman law countries, while the equivalent function in civil law jurisdictions is carried out by an examining magistrate or another official or sometimes by the police.

In Scotland for example, the relevent official is the Procurator fiscal and in some US states the medical examiner carries out this function. the coronial system differs from other medico-legal systems in that there is a mandatory requirement for a public inquest in the case of an unnatural death. Although there are differences in detail, the coroner system pertaining in England and Wales is very similar to that presently in existence in Ireland.

Coroners are entitled to receive the assistance of the Garda Síochána at all their inquests and protection in the execution of ther office generally. There are many points of interaction between the coroner and the Garda Síochána persuant to statue and under current practice and procedure. The Coroners Act places a statutory duty on registered medical practitioners and others to inform the coroner of sudden unexplained or unnatural deaths. A similar, in effect, is placed on members of the Garda Síochána by the same Section of the Act

In addition any member of the public at common law has a duty to inform the coroner of such deaths. An additional provision inder the 1962 Act to assist the public in informing the coroner, states that the obligation shall be deemed to be discharged, if he or she immediately notifies a member of the Garda Síochána not below the rank of Sergeant of the facts and circumstances of the death

Importance of C.71 forms

In practice a coroner is put on his inquiry most often by a report from registered medical practitioner or on foot of a C.71 form from the Gardaí. Further inquires may be made by the coroner himself, but in most instances, this is effected by means of the co-operation of the Garda Síochána acting both in that capacity and also as de facto coroner's officers.

Post mortem requests

Post mortem examinations are carried out in a hospital mortuary or at a municipal morgue such as the Dublin City Morgue. Prior to a body being received into the Dublin City Morgue, death must have been pronounced by a registered medical practicioner. The coroner will request a consultant ( or a trainee pathologist under the direction of a consultant) to perform the post mortem examination. The coroner may, of his own volition, request the state pathologist to carry out a particular autopsy, but this power must be exercised if a coroner is requested to do so by a member of the Garda Síochána not below the rank of Inspector. The coroner will later write to the Minister for Justice under the provisions set out in the Act.

Serving on coroner's jury

Section 43 of the Act states that "whenever a jury is required for an inquest at any time and place, the coroner shall so inform a member of the Garda Síochána and the member shall assemble not less than six and not more than 12 persons qualified to be jurors at the inquest at such time and place and may, if he thinks it necessary, serve summonses in the prescribed form to ensure their attendance".

In a coroners large jurisdiction such as that of the City of Dublin this requirement for a jury may place a burden on some of the busier Garda stations. One way of reducing the requirement for a jury is, as currently practised, to hold jury and non-jury cases on separate sittings and, in effect, this means one jury per week in Dublin City. At present the coroner has no access to juror lists, although this is perhaps something that might be explored in the future