Section 1: Duty to investigate certain deaths
59.This section sets out the circumstances when a senior coroner must investigate a death. It mirrors the requirements of section 8(1) of the 1988 Act, except that the requirement to investigate where the death is “sudden” or has occurred “in prison” (section 8(1)(c)) has been altered so that it applies to deaths where the deceased “died a violent or unnatural death,” or “the cause of death is unknown” or “died while in custody or otherwise in state detention”.
60.The location of the body of the deceased will determine which senior coroner has a duty to investigate the death, as was the case under sections 5(1) and 8(1) of the 1988 Act. This is to ensure that more than one coroner does not initiate an investigation. Under the new system, senior coroners will, as now, be allocated to a geographical area, although later sections in Part 1 of the Act set out the circumstances when these boundary restrictions can be relaxed.
61.Subsection (2) sets out the types of death that a senior coroner must investigate. A coroner must investigate a death that he or she suspects was violent or unnatural, where for example, the deceased might have been murdered or taken his or her own life, or if the cause of death is unknown. A coroner must also investigate a death, whatever the apparent cause, if it occurred in “custody or state detention” (“state detention” is defined in section 48(2)), such as while the deceased was detained in prison, in police custody or in an immigration detention centre, or held under mental health legislation, irrespective of whether the detention was lawful or unlawful. The circumstances in which a coroner must investigate a death are broadly similar to those in section 8(1) of the 1988 Act. The requirement that a death be “sudden” has been removed. (Where other authorities have a statutory requirement to investigate particular deaths, such as the Health and Safety Executive or the Independent Police Complaints Commission, we anticipate that the coroner will await those authorities’ reports before deciding how to proceed. This is apart from the commissioning of post-mortem examinations, where appropriate, and associated duties in relation to the body of the deceased person.)
62.Subsection (1) is subject to section 2 (which makes provision for a senior coroner to request another senior coroner to conduct the investigation), section 3 (under which the Chief Coroner may direct that an investigation be conducted by a different senior coroner from the one who would otherwise be under a duty to conduct it), section 4 (which makes provision for an investigation to be discontinued) and Schedule 10 (which makes provision for persons other than the senior coroner in the area where the body is to conduct the investigation).
63.A senior coroner’s initial decision as to whether to conduct an investigation will be subject to appeal to the Chief Coroner under section 40.
64.Subsections (4) to (6), which correlate to section 15 of the 1988 Act, set out the arrangements for investigating deaths when the senior coroner thinks that a death has occurred which should be investigated but there is no body; and so the duty to investigate the death in subsection (1) does not apply. This includes circumstances such as where a body has been lost at, or swept away to, sea, or if someone is suspected to have lost their life in a fire and there are no remains, or if the deceased has already been cremated and information previously unavailable comes to light which the senior coroner believes should lead him or her to investigate.
65.These subsections allow a senior coroner to report the details of such a death to the Chief Coroner, who may direct an investigation be held.
66.Under the 1988 Act it was the Secretary of State who could direct a coroner to conduct an inquest in the absence of a body. In the reformed system, the Chief Coroner might also decide that no investigation is necessary. If the Chief Coroner decides that action should be taken, the senior coroner directed to carry out the investigation does not have to be the same coroner that reported the death although in most circumstances it is likely that it would be. An example of a reason the Chief Coroner might have for allocating the case to a different coroner is that it might be more convenient for the bereaved relatives for the investigation to take place in an alternative area.
67.Provision is made in subsection (7) enabling a coroner to make whatever enquiries are thought to be necessary in order to help the coroner decide whether the duty under subsection (1) (to conduct an investigation into a death) or the power under subsection (4) (to report a death where there is no body) arises.