Coroners in United Kingdom
Coroner, an ancient officer of the English common law, so called, according to Coke, because he was a keeper of the pleas of the crown (custos placitorum coronae). At what period the office of coroner was instituted is a matter of considerable doubt; some modern authorities (Stubbs, Select Charters, 260; Pollock and Maitland, Hist. Eng. Law, i. 519) date its origin from 1194, but C. Gross (Political Science Quarterly, vol. vii.) has shown that it must have existed before that date. The office was always elective, the appointment being made by the freeholders of the county assembled in county court.
By the Statute of Westminster the First it was ordered that none but lawful and discreet knights should be chosen as coroners, and in one instance a person was actually removed from office for insufficiency of estate. Lands to the value of £20 per annum (the qualification for knighthood) were afterwards deemed sufficient to satisfy the requirements as to estate which ought to be insisted on in the case of a coroner. The complaint of Blackstone shows the transition of the office from its original dignified and honorary 188 character to a paid appointment in the public service, “Now, indeed, through the culpable neglect of gentlemen of property, this office has been suffered to fall into disrepute, and get into low and indigent hands; so that, although formerly no coroners would condescend to be paid for serving their country, and they were by the aforesaid Statute of Westminster expressly forbidden to take a reward, under pain of a great forfeiture to the king; yet for many years past they have only desired to be chosen for their perquisites; being allowed fees for their attendance by the statute 3 Henry VII. c. 1, which Sir Edward Coke complains of heavily; though since his time those fees have been much enlarged.”
The mercenary character of the office, thus deprecated by Coke and Blackstone, is now firmly established, without, however (it need hardly be said), affording the slightest ground for such reflections as the above. The coroner is in fact a public officer, and like other public officers receives payment for his services. The person appointed is almost invariably a qualified legal or medical practitioner; how far one is a more “fit person” than another has frequently been a matter of dispute—a Bill of 1879, which, however, failed to pass, decided in favour of the legal profession. The property qualification for a county coroner (“having land in fee sufficient in the same county whereof he may answer to all manner of people,” 14 Ed. III. st. 1, c. 8), although re-enacted in the Coroners Act 1887, is now virtually dispensed with. The appointment is for life, but is vacated by the holder being made sheriff. A coroner may be removed by the writ de coronatore exonerando, for sufficient cause assigned, or the lord chancellor may, if he thinks fit, remove any coroner from his office for inability or misbehaviour in the discharge of his duty.
Coroners are of three kinds:
- coroners by virtue of their office, e.g. the lord chief justice of the king’s bench is the principal coroner of England; the puisne judges of the king’s bench are sovereign coroners—they may exercise their jurisdiction within any part of the realm, even in the verge (1) or other exempt liberties or franchises;
- coroners by charter or commission, e.g. in certain liberties and franchises coroners are appointed by the crown or by lords holding a charter from the crown;
- coroners by virtue of election, e.g. county and borough coroners.
County coroners in England were, until 1888, elected by the freeholders, but by the Local Government Act 1888 the appointment was given to the county council, who may appoint any fit person, not being a county alderman or county councillor, to fill the office. By an act of 1860 the system of payment by fees, established by an act of 1843, was abolished and payment made by salary calculated on the average amount of the fees, mileage, and allowances usually received by the coroner for a period of five years, and the calculation revised every five years. In boroughs having a separate court of quarter sessions, and whose population exceeds 10,000, the coroner is appointed by the town council and is paid by fees.
A county coroner must reside within his district or not more than two miles out of it. Deputy coroners are also appointed in both counties and boroughs, and the law relating to their appointment is contained in the Coroners Act 1892. The duties of a coroner were ascertained by 4 Edward I. st. 2:
“A coroner of our Lord the king ought to inquire of these things, first, when coroners are commanded by the king’s bailiffs or by the honest men of the county, they shall go to the places where any be slain, or suddenly dead or wounded, or where houses are broken, or where treasure is said to be found, and shall forthwith command four of the next towns, or five, or six, to appear before him in such a place; and when they are come thither, the coroner upon the oath of them shall inquire in this manner, that is, to wit, if it concerns a man slain, if they know when the person was slain, whether it were in any house, field, bed, tavern, or company, and if any, and who, were there, etc.
It shall also be inquired if the dead person were known, or else a stranger, and where he lay the night before. And if any person is said to be guilty of the murder, the coroner shall go to their house and inquire what goods they have, etc.” Similar directions were given for cases of persons found drowned or suddenly dead, for attachment of criminals in cases of violence, etc. His functions are now, by the Coroners Act 1887, limited to an inquiry upon “the dead body of a person lying within his jurisdiction, where there is reasonable cause to suspect that such person has died either a violent or an unnatural death, or has died a sudden death of which the cause is unknown, or that such person has died in prison, or in such place or under such circumstances as to require an inquest in pursuance of any act” (S. 3), and upon treasure-trove (S. 36). The inquisition must be super visum corporis (that is, after “viewing the body”); the evidence is taken on oath; and any party suspected may tender evidence. The Coroners Act 1887, S. 21, gives power to the coroner to summon medical witnesses and to direct the performance of a post-mortem examination.
The verdict must be that of twelve at least of the jury. If any person is found guilty of murder or other homicide, the coroner shall commit him to prison for trial; he shall also certify the material evidence to the court, and bind over the proper persons to prosecute or to give evidence at the trial. He may in his discretion accept bail for a person found guilty of manslaughter. Since the abolition of public executions, the coroner is required to hold an inquest on the body of any criminal on whom sentence of death has been carried into effect. The duty of coroners to inquire into treasure-trove (q.v.) is still preserved by the Coroners Act 1887, which, however, repealed certain other jurisdictions, as,—inquests of royal fish (whale, sturgeon) thrown ashore or caught near the coast; inquest of wrecks, and of felonies, except felonies on inquisitions of death. By the City of London Fire Inquests Act 1888 the duty is imposed upon the coroner for the city to hold inquests in cases of loss or injury by fire in the city of London and the liberties thereof situated in the county of Middlesex. This is a practice which exists in several European countries.
In Scotland the duties of a coroner are performed by an officer called a procurator-fiscal.
In the United States and in most of the colonies of Great Britain the duties of a coroner are substantially the same. In some cases his duties are more enlarged, his inquisition embracing the origin of fires; in others they are confined to holding inquests in cases of suspicious deaths. Unlike a coroner in England, he is elected generally only for a specified period.
In 1908 a committee was appointed to inquire into the law relating to coroners and coroners’ inquests and into the practice in coroners’ courts.
Source: Encyclopedia Britannica (1911)
1. Coroner of the Verge.—The verge comprised a circuit of 12 m. round the king’s court, and the coroner of the king’s house, called the coroner of the verge, has jurisdiction within this radius. By the Coroners Act 1887 the jurisdiction of the verge was abolished and became absorbed in that of the county, but the appointment of the king’s coroner was left with the lord steward, while his jurisdiction was limited to the precincts of the palace.
- Coroners in the Encyclopedia of Britain
- Coroners in the Osborn’s Concise Law Dictionary
- Coroners in the Halsbury’s Laws of England
- Coroners in the Stroud’s Judicial Dictionary of Words and Phrases
- Jervis, Office and Duties of Coroners (6th ed., 1898); R. H. Wellington, The King’s Coroner (2 vols., 1905-1906).
- Coroners in the Jowitt’s Dictionary of English Law
- Coroners in the New Oxford Companion to Law
- Coroners in the Words and Phrases Legally Defined
- Coroners in the Oxford Dictionary of Law