As you may know, I run a consulting service where you can send me policing questions or a manuscript to read through and one of the most common misconceptions I see popping up is the one between pathologist and coroner. It is as though the two titles are interchangeable or completely mistaken. That the coroner is thought to be the person who does the post-mortem and this is just not the case.
So, let’s look at them, shall we?
The pathologist is the person who conducts the post-mortem. You need a forensic Home Office registered pathologist to conduct the pm on a murder victim. Technically the coroner appoints the pathologist. Everyone is working for the coroner once there is a dead body. Any dead body belongs to the coroner and there is no one above them.
A pathologist will attend certain crime scenes but only when the SIO has said s/he is ready. When they are satisfied the initial crime scene examinations have been completed and the body can be removed from the scene without any detriment to the investigation.
Attendance is beneficial at scenes such as;
- Multiple stabbing;
- Shootings with multiple shots;
- Complex scenes;
- Multiple scenes and/or multiple deaths
- Circumstances where samples are needed to be taken in situ;
- Advanced decomp;
- Any other scene the SIO thinks will be benefitted by attendance.
So, your pathologist is the person who will then conduct the post-mortem. They will ascertain cause of death as well as a possible time of death.
The coroner is a qualified legal person, usually a barrister or solicitor. They can sometimes also be a medical doctor but their primary entry requirement is legal.
As I said above, once a person has died they “belong” to the coroner. This is especially true if they have died in suspicious circumstances. You need permission from the coroner to move the body from the scene but in all fiction, this is done behind the scenes.
The coroner has the duty to hold an inquest where there is reasonable cause to suspect:
- The person died a violent or unnatural death;
- The death was sudden and cause unknown;
- The death was in custody
- The death is suspected to be from industrial disease.
The role of the coroner and purpose of an inquest is to determine:
- When and where death occurred
- particulars required to register death
The inquest is not a trial and will not apportion blame or comment on criminal liability of any named person.
If a police officer has two court warnings (two court dates at the same time) and one is for coroners court, she attends the coroner’s court. That is the power of the coroner.
Inquests can be held months after a death has occurred. It takes time to gather all the facts and information together. In relation to a murder case, once a person has been charged with murder/manslaughter, the coroner is notified and the inquest will wait pending the result of the criminal trial. The coroner will, however, register the death, enabling the death certificates to be issued.
If the person charged is convicted the coroner would not normally continue with an inquest, as the crown court proceedings take the place of the inquest. In the absence of a conviction, the inquest will be resumed. The coroner’s file will rely heavily on the material gathered during the murder investigation.
I hope this helps clear up the difference between pathologists and coroners.
You can find all other posts in this series HERE.
Rebecca Bradley is a retired UK police detective with over 15 years UK policing experience. Seven of those years were in uniform and the rest in a specialist investigative department where She handled multiple, serious and complex investigations. She is now a crime writer and offers a police procedural fact-checking service, available to all crime writers setting their work in England or Wales.
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José Ignacio Escribano says
Thanks for a clarifying post, Rebecca. There’s a problem when translating both words to Spanish. Most dictionaries will use the same word, forense, but Spain don’t have a coroner system and his function is done by a juez instructor, a magistrate in our legal system, un charge of the instruction of the case, but who will not be the final judge.
Margot Kinberg says
This is a really interesting, helpful post, Rebecca – thanks. I think part of the reason there’s so much confusion about who does what is that the roles of coroner and pathologist are sometimes muddied on TV shows and some films. And, although they do very different things, their roles do ‘touch’ each other in real life. And yet, as you say, they don’t really do the same thing at all.