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Legal Eagle: Why a post-mortem can be held

The Coroner's Court.
The Coroner's Court.

A relative recently died in hospital. I am her next of kin. I was surprised to be contacted by someone from the coroner’s office telling me there was going to be a post-mortem. Can they do this without my permission and why is it required?

A coroner is required to investigate where the death is considered unnatural, due to violence, the cause is unknown or if the person died while in custody or state detention.

It may well be that regrettably the doctors caring for your relative could not certify to the coroner the cause of your relative’s death and therefore could not complete a death certificate.

Recent events have shown how important it can be for coroners to be informed of unnatural deaths or where the cause is uncertain so that they can decide if an investigation is required.

If the coroner decides to hold an investigation its purpose is to establish who the deceased was, how, when and where they died, and the particulars required to register the death. Usually the question of how someone died is the principal issue.

Often to determine the cause of death the coroner will ask a pathologist to perform a post-mortem. They can do this without permission from the family. When the examination has been completed the coroner will generally give you a form to enable you to arrange the funeral.

The pathologist examines the body and reports to the coroner who will then decide if further investigation is required. The coroner will ask for further enquiries to be made by the hospital, the coroner’s officer and possibly even the police.

When the coroner has all the evidence they will hold a public hearing. This can include questioning witnesses. Usually a coroner will try to help a family put relevant questions to the witnesses but an “interested person” i.e. a family member or their representative can do this if they feel able.

At the end of the hearing the coroner will give a verdict. This may be very short such as accident, natural causes or even open if the cause is still uncertain. The coroner may set out the conclusions in a narrative form if this is more appropriate.

If the coroner is concerned that a risk of further deaths exists then they may make a report to the person who can act to prevent such risks continuing. This might include the hospital itself or others.

•Ben Hoare Bell LLP has specialist medical negligence solicitors. To speak to a solicitor please phone 0191 565 3112 or email advice@benhoarebell.co.uk. Visit www.benhoarebell.co.uk for further information.