The coroner’s office is an ancient office dating back to the Middle Ages. An inquiry was held at the place of death, typically where there had been a crime, to examine the body and make findings associated with the crime.
The Coroner’s Act 1962 put coroners law on a modern footing, repealing numerous old acts dating back 700 years. The Act has been amended, most recently in 2019. More comprehensive reform has been proposed for many years.
The purpose of the Coroner’s Act 2019 is to amend the Coroners Act 1962 to clarify, modernise and strengthen the legal powers of coroners in relation to the reporting of deaths and the conduct of post-mortem examinations and inquests. The Act also enhances compliance with the requirements of Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
The coroner’s role is limited to ascertaining the facts and immediate cause(s) of death.
The 2019 Act widens the scope of an inquest – from investigating the proximate medical cause of death to establishing in what circumstances the deceased met his or her death, to the extent that the coroner considers necessary in that case.
He or she is not responsible for attaching blame or investigating the more remote causes. That is a matter for the criminal and civil courts.
The State is divided into coroners’ districts in accordance with ministerial orders. Coroners are appointed for each district. Separate provisions are made for the coroner’s district of Dublin.
The coroner is appointed by the local authority for the district concerned. The salary is paid by the local authority with the approval of the Minister. The coroner is to hold office until he dies, resigns or is removed, or attains the age of 72.
There are provisions for the appointment of temporary coroners. They may be appointed and assigned to particular districts where there is particular need. This may include circumstances arising from a pandemic, catastrophic event or other occurrence leading to mass fatalities.
The coroner shall have an ordinary residence in the district. Consent is required to reside elsewhere.
Coroners may appoint Deputy coroners with the consent of the Minister. A deputy coroner may act for the coroner during illness or absence or where he is disqualified. There are special provisions in respect of the coroner’s district of Dublin. Deputy coroners may be authorised to act outside Dublin where there are exceptional circumstances.
Appointment & Removal of Coroners
The coroner shall be a barrister, solicitor or medical practitioner of at least five years’ standing. This may include a barrister or solicitor in service of the state.
A coroner or deputy coroner may be removed from office by reason of neglect of duty or if they are unfit or incapable of discharging duties by reason of physical or mental infirmity. A procedure applies.
Registration of Death
It is compulsory to register the death of a person with the Registrar. There is a prescribed death notification form for completion by the certifying doctor. The certifying doctor is one who has personally attended the deceased during his last illness.
Where death occurs in a hospital, its staff will generally complete the registration. Where it occurs at home or in a nursing home, it is registered by a qualified person. This may be a relative with knowledge of the particulars, a person present at death or another with the knowledge.
Where the death occurs in a dwelling house, hospital or other institution, persons present – or, in the latter case, the chief officer – may make the return.
The person who found the body concerned, the person who took charge of that body or another person who has knowledge of the cause of circumstances of death may be a qualified informant for the purpose of notifying the death.
Where a death is referred to a coroner, the coroner gives a certificate of the cause of death. Coroners may have legal or medical qualifications or both. He or she makes findings based on medical facts as to the cause of death. He or she investigates and certifies the cause of death. He or she is an independent officer.
Duty to Hold Inquest
Coroners may act informally in many cases. In other cases, an inquest should be called. This is a formal investigation into the circumstances of the death. The coroner may call witnesses and hear evidence. Persons may be examined on oath.
The purpose of the inquest is to ascertain the identity of the deceased where it is an issue, the reason for death as well as, if appropriate, the time and place of death.
Where a coroner is informed that the body of a deceased person is lying within his district, it shall be the duty of the coroner to hold an inquest in relation to the death of that person if he is of opinion that:
- the death may have occurred in a violent or unnatural manner;
- the death occurred unexpectedly and from unknown causes;
- the deceased person was, at the time of his or her death or immediately before his or her death, in State custody or detention, or;
- the death of the person is a maternal death or a late maternal death.
The obligation also applies if any other legislation requires that an inquest be held.
Optional Power to Hold Inquests
Where a coroner is informed that a medical certificate of the cause of death is not procurable or such a certificate is not, in the opinion of the coroner, completed in a satisfactory manner to facilitate the registration of the death, he may inquire into the circumstances of the death of that person and, if he is unable to ascertain the cause of death, may, if he so thinks proper, hold an inquest in relation to the death.
Inquests during Criminal Proceedings
Where criminal charges are being considered or pursued, a Garda or other officer may request an adjournment of the coroner’s inquest until the investigations are concluded. The coroner must accept the request.
The purpose is to ensure that the coroner’s inquest does not undermine the criminal proceedings by appearing to prejudge the matter. In some circumstances, for example, where a person is convicted, the coroner’s inquest may be redundant and may be cancelled.
Other Powers of the Coroner
The coroner may direct the doctor who cares for the patient to sign the death certificate where the cause of death is clear. Where the coroner conducts an inquiry post-mortem or inquest fee, he assumes responsibility for the certificate. It replaces the medical certificate of death. If a death cert is issued and is subsequently found to be incorrect, the death cert may be amended.
The coroner may issue directions regarding removal and custody of the body of the deceased pending an inquest or a post-mortem examination.
The coroner may enter a premises and inspect or seize documents or things under a warrant issued by a judge of the District Court. Such a warrant may be issued by the District Court judge if satisfied, on the sworn information of the coroner, that there are reasonable grounds to suspect that the premises contains documents or things required by the coroner for the purposes of his or her inquiry under the Act into the death of a person.
A coroner may obtain advice and assistance from an expert in a particular subject matter, if required for the purposes of the coroner’s inquiry into a death.
Rights of Families
Where an inquest is to be held into the death of a person in State custody or detention, a family member of the deceased person may apply to the coroner to be granted legal aid or legal advice, or both, pursuant to the Civil Legal Aid Act 1995.
Legal aid or advice may be granted on the same basis to a family member where an inquest is to be held into a maternal death or late maternal death.