A coroner is an independent public official who is legally responsible for investigating sudden, violent or unexplained deaths in order to find out if the death is due to natural or unnatural causes. In order to do this they may call for a post-mortem examination. If they discover that the death is due to unnatural causes than an inquest may be held.
Appointment and legislation
There is one coroner assigned to each coroner district. These are roughly the same as local authority districts, but some counties have more than one coroner district. For example, Wicklow has two coroner districts: Wicklow East and Wicklow West.
Coroners are appointed by the local authority except in Dublin where they are appointed by the Minister for Justice. The Department of Justice is responsible for the legislation that governs the role and responsibilities of coroners, while matters such as their expenses are managed by the relevant local authority.
The principal legislation that governs coroners is the Coroners Act 1962, as amended. The Coroners (Amendment) Act 2019 strengthened and modernised coroner powers in the reporting, investigation and inquest of deaths.
Role and responsibilities
The role of the coroner is to enquire into the circumstances of sudden, unexplained and violent deaths. This may require a post-mortem examination, sometimes followed by an inquest. The post-mortem is carried out by a pathologist acting on behalf of the coroner. The coroner's inquiry is first 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 allowed to consider civil or criminal liability; they must simply establish the facts. If a death is due to unnatural causes, then they can decide to hold an inquest.
If a person dies from an illness that they had seen a doctor for within one month before their death than a coroner will not be involved. Their doctor will issue the medical certificate of the cause of death. The death can then be registered and a death certificate can be obtained.
Reporting a death to the coroner
Sudden, unexplained or violent deaths should be reported to the coroner by:
- A healthcare professional in the case of a death due to natural causes in a nursing home or if the doctor had not seen the deceased within one month before their death
- The Garda Síochána in the case of an death from unnatural causes
- The deceased person’s doctor
- A funeral undertaker
- The Registrar of deaths
- Any householder and any person in charge of an institution or premises where the person who died was living
The Garda Síochána will assist the coroner in arranging a formal identification of the body of the deceased by someone who knew them. The Gardaí will send the coroner a report on the circumstances of the death. They may take statements relating to the death. The Gardaí being involved does not mean that the death is being treated as suspicious.
Types of death that must be reported to the coroner include any death:
- That is COVID-19 related
- Where the deceased was not seen by their doctor within one month before their death
- That may be murder, manslaughter, suicide or infanticide
- That is connected with a suspected crime
- Caused by a drugs overdose
- Where the deceased person is dead on arrival at a hospital
- Where the deceased person is unidentified
- Where no family member of the deceased person can be found
- Where the date of death is uncertain or may have occurred a long time ago
- Which is caused by an accident with a vehicle, train, aircraft or ship
- Which may be due to a prion disease
- Caused fully or partly by an accident at work
- Which is a maternal or infant death
- Where concern has been expressed about the deceased person’s medical treatment
- That occurred in a hospital and is related to a surgical operation or anaesthesia
- That happens in an institution for the care of people with a physical or mental disability
- That happens in a nursing home
- That happens in, or immediately after a person leaves, state custody
- Of a child in care
This is not a complete list; the Coroners Service provides more information on deaths which must be reported.
Registering the death
If a medical certificate of the cause of death is not available to register the death, the coroner will arrange for a post-mortem examination of the body. If the post-mortem shows that death was due to natural causes, and there is no need for an inquest, a Coroner's Certificate is issued to the Registrar of Births and Deaths who then registers the death and issues the death certificate.
If an inquest is necessary, the death will be registered by means of a Coroner's Certificate when the inquest is finished (or if it is adjourned).
Before the inquest or while waiting for the post-mortem report, the coroner's office can provide an Interim Certificate of the Fact of Death, which may be acceptable to banks, insurance companies and other institutions.
Contact information for the coroner for your district as well as information on the Coroner Service is available at coroner.ie.