A Coroner in Ireland is an independent official with legal responsibility for the investigation of sudden and unexplained deaths. The role of the Coroner is to enquire into the circumstances of sudden, unexplained, violent and unnatural deaths. This may require a post-mortem examination, sometimes followed by an inquest. The post-mortem is carried out by a pathologist, who acts as the Coroner's agent for this purpose. The Coroner's inquiry initially is concerned with establishing whether or not death was due to natural causes.
The Coroner essentially establishes the "who, when, where and how" of unexplained death. A Coroner is not permitted to consider civil or criminal liability; he or she must simply establish the facts. If a death is due to unnatural causes, then an inquest must be held by law. The principal legislation that established the role and responsibilities of Coroners in Ireland is the Coroners Act 1962. The Coroner's (Amendment) Act 2005 provides for increased sanctions for those who refuse to co-operate with the proper conduct of an inquest. The revised legislation also ends the restriction on the number of medical and other witnesses.
A Coroner will not be involved in cases where a person died from a natural illness or disease for which the deceased was being treated by a doctor within one month prior to death. In this case, the doctor will issue the medical certificate of the cause of death. The death can then be registered and a death certificate can be obtained.
In cases of sudden, unnatural or violent death, there is a legal responsibility on the doctor, registrar of deaths, funeral undertaker, householder and every person in charge of any institution or premises in which the deceased person was residing at the time of his/her death to report such a death to the Coroner. The death may be reported to an member of the Garda Síochána not below the rank of sergeant who will notify the coroner. However at common law, any person may notify the Coroner of the circumstances of a particular death.
In situations where a medical certificate of the cause of death is not available, the Coroner will arrange for a post-mortem examination of the body. If the post-mortem examination shows that death was due to natural causes, and there is no need for an inquest, a Coroner's Certificate will be issued to the Registrar of Births and Deaths who will then register the death and issue the death certificate.
If death is due to unnatural causes, the Coroner is obliged to hold an inquest. The death will be registered by means of a Coroner's Certificate when the inquest is concluded (or adjourned in some cases).
Prior to the inquest (or whilst awaiting the post-mortem report), the Coroner's office will provide an Interim Certificate of the Fact of Death, which may be acceptable to banks, insurance companies and other institutions.
A post-mortem (or autopsy) is a procedure to establish the cause of death. If the cause of death cannot be determined beforehand, the Coroner will arrange for a post-mortem examination to be carried out. If the post-mortem shows that death was due to natural causes and there is no need for an inquest, the Coroner will issue a certificate so that the death may be registered. It may take up to six weeks or longer before a post-mortem report from the pathologist is produced. The death cannot be registered until the post-mortem is received.
The Garda Síochana will assist the Coroner in arranging a formal identification of the body by a member of the family or a relative of the deceased. The Gardaí will send to the Coroner a report on the circumstances of the death. The fact that relatives may be met at the hospital by a uniformed Garda, or that a Garda may call to the home to take a statement, does not mean that the death is regarded as suspicious. Members of the Gardaí will in most cases be acting also as Coroner's officers.
You must be at least 30 years old to enter the Coroner service and must be a registered medical practitioner or practising solicitor or barrister for five years. While in the service, the core professions of those involved are those of medicine and law. All Coroners work on a part-time basis. Coroners are paid a basic fee based on the size category of their district and they are also paid expenses relating to operation of their office. Coroners are appointed for particular districts within a local authority area by the local authority, on the recommendation of the Public Appointments Service. The jurisdiction of Coroners is limited to the district to which they are appointed and they must also reside in this district, unless they receive permission from the Minister for Justice and Equality to do otherwise. Retirement age for Coroners in Ireland is 70 years.
At present, Coroner districts are roughly equivalent to local authority areas. There are 47 Coroner districts in Ireland. The Civil Law (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2011 has amended the legislation to allow for the Coroner districts of Dublin city and Dublin county to be amalgated. Each of the Coroner districts has a Coroner, and a deputy Coroner who fills in if the Coroner is absent or ill. While the Coroner system is subject to the general supervision of the Minister for Justice and Equality, the Coroners are independent in their function. This means that the Coroner acts on behalf of the State.
The Minister for Justice and Equality has the power to remove a Coroner or deputy Coroner from office if he or she has been found guilty of misconduct and neglect of duty. In addition, in cases where it is decided the Coroner is unfit for office or is incapable of carrying out his or her duties by reason of physical or mental infirmity, the Coroner will also be removed from duty.
In 2000 a Working Group established by the Minister for Justice and Equality reviewed the Coroner Service in Ireland. The Group reviewed all aspects of the Service, identifying issues that need to be addressed, making over 100 recommendations for improvements in the short, medium and long term, etc. View the 2000 Report of the Working Group Review of the Coroner Service here (pdf). In 2003, following on from a recommendation of the Working Group, the Report of the Coroner's Rules Committee was published.
The Coroner's (Amendment) Act 2005 which amended the Coroners Act 1962 was passed by the Dail in December 2005. In 2007 the Department of Justice and Equality published the Coroner's Bill 2007 which incorporates many of the recommendations made by the Working Review Group in 2000.
Certain deaths must be reported to the Coroner. These deaths include the following:
Deaths occurring at home or other place of residence:
Deaths occurring in hospitals:
Deaths reported to the Coroner by an officer of An Garda Síochána (Irish police force):
Deaths reported to the Coroner by the Governor of a Prison in Ireland:
Other categories of death reportable include:
Coroner districts in Ireland (there is one Coroner per district) are roughly equivalent to local authority districts. (However, in some cases, there are a number of Coroners in the same County). Contact information for the Coroner for your district as well as information on the Coroner Service is available on the www.coroner.ie website.
If you have a question relating to this topic you can contact the Citizens Information Phone Service on 0761 07 4000 (Monday to Friday, 9am to 8pm) or you can visit your local Citizens Information Centre.