- Immediately after the killing
- Coroners – Who they are and what they do
- What you need to know about Post Mortems & Inquests
- Suicide after Homicide
IN ENGLAND & WALES
Immediately after the killing
In the first few hours after somebody is murdered or unlawfully killed the body of the deceased person forms part of the evidence at the crime scene. Forensic and other tests have to be carried out and families will have no access to their loved ones during this time.
After the crime scene investigation has been completed the body will usually be taken to a hospital mortuary and will then come under the control of the Coroner.
Sometimes families can see the body at this time, although they are not always allowed to hold or touch their loved ones. It depends on the circumstances of the case.
Coroners are officials responsible for investigating violent, suspicious or unnatural deaths. They are usually doctors or lawyers, and their job is to try and establish the cause of death.
They are independent from the Police.
In cases of murder, manslaughter or infanticide the Coroner will need to order a post-mortem – an invasive medical examination of the body to find out more about the cause of death.
This will be done in a hospital by a pathologist and is normally completed as soon as possible, usually within a few days.
If criminal charges have been brought against somebody for causing the death, it may also be necessary to have a second post mortem or further investigations. If this happens, the release of the body and the funeral arrangements will be delayed.
Only when the Coroner has enough information to make a decision on the cause of death will the body be released for the funeral.
If the death was due to a violent act the Coroner will hold an Inquest – a legal inquiry into the causes and circumstances of a death.
The local Coroner’s office is usually listed in the phone book and should be able to provide more information.
Families do not have the right to object to a post-mortem ordered by the coroner, but they are encouraged to tell the Coroner if they have any religious or other strong objections.
Families and the next-of-kin have the right:
- to be told in advance the date, time and place of the post mortem examination unless this is not practicable or would unduly delay the examination;
- to have their choice of medical representative present at the post mortem;
They may also:
- ask the Coroner for reasonable access to see the body, if they wish, before it is released for the funeral;
- ask the Coroner for a copy of the post mortem report, but a fee may be payable;
- ask the Coroner about a separate post mortem.
Any separate examination on behalf of the family would have to be at the family’s own expense and by a pathologist of their choice. Other persons with an interest (such as defence lawyers) may have similar rights.
An inquest is a legal inquiry into the cause and circumstances of a death.
It examines who has died, how they died and when and where the death occurred.
It’s not a criminal trial; the Coroner does not blame anyone for the death.
An inquest is usually opened reasonably quickly after the incident primarily to record that a death has occurred and to identify the dead person.
The Coroner then sends a form to the registrar of deaths to allow the death to be registered.
Where someone has been charged with causing someone’s death, e.g. by murder or manslaughter, the inquest is adjourned until that person’s trial is over.
The Coroner will then need to decide whether to resume the inquest. If someone is convicted after a trial, there will not normally be a need to do so because the Coroner will accept the findings of the Court.
If the person accused of the crime is found not guilty, or if the perpetrator commits suicide, or is never found, then an inquest would normally follow.
If the full inquest is resumed, a date will be set and the people entitled to be notified will be told – but only if their details are known to the coroner.
This can include the police, lawyers, medical experts and the family.
Inquests are open to the public – sometimes with a jury – and journalists are usually present.
Families and the next-of-kin have the right:
- to be told the date, time and place of the inquest;
- to question witnesses at the inquest, but the questions can only be about the medical cause and circumstances of the death.
Relatives can also ask a lawyer to represent them and ask questions, but normally there is no legal aid available for this.
Inquests do not determine blame and the verdict will not identify someone as having criminal or civil liability.
Possible verdicts include: natural causes, accident, suicide, unlawful or lawful killing, industrial disease, and open verdicts (where there is insufficient evidence for any other verdict).
A verdict may also be set out in narrative form – a written statement of the circumstances of the case which, while not naming anybody as responsible, can allow a level of criticism not possible with the other verdicts.
A narrative verdict is usually delivered in cases where the inquest has shown that something needs to be done to prevent more deaths in similar circumstances in future. The Coroner can draw attention to this publicly and will write to the appropriate authorities.
Notes of Evidence at an inquest can be seen by the family or other properly interested persons, and copies may be obtained for a fee.
In Scotland the Procurator Fiscal is the public official responsible for the investigation of all sudden, suspicious and unexplained deaths. They are qualified lawyers and are employed by the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service.
The Procurator Fiscal is responsible for investigating the circumstances and cause of death and, if necessary, instructing a post mortem examination.
Where there are suspicious circumstances surrounding the death, the Procurator Fiscal will instruct the police to investigate and consider whether criminal charges should be brought. A post mortem examination will be carried out and the funeral can only take place when all the enquiries relating to the cause of death are complete.
As in England families have no right to object to a Post Mortem, the consent of the next of kin is not required.
The Post Mortem will be carried out as soon as possible, normally within a day or two of the death.
The Procurator Fiscal is supposed to ensure that families are updated and kept fully informed on any developments in the investigation.
Nearest relatives will be invited to meet with the Procurator Fiscal when there is the possibility of criminal proceedings or when a Fatal Accident Inquiry is being considered.
Victim Information and Advice (VIA) staff at the Procurator Fiscal’s office should contact relatives if there is to be a prosecution, further investigations or a Fatal Accident Inquiry. VIA staff can provide information about the progress of the case and can help families get in touch with support agencies.
ENGLAND & WALES
MINISTRY OF JUSTICE
- When Sudden Death Occurs – Coroners and Inquests, July 2007
- The work of the Coroner, July 2007 http://www.direct.gov.uk/en/Governmentcitizensandrights/Death/WhatToDoAfterADeath/DG_066713
Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service – The Role of the Procurator Fiscal in the Investigation of Deaths. http://www.copfs.gov.uk/investigating-deaths/our-role-in-investigating-deaths
What to do after a death in Scotland … practical advice for times of bereavement: 9th Edition http://www.scotland.gov.uk/Publications/2009/06/24094516/4