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A coroner is the presiding officer of a special court to investigate deaths that occur under unusual circumstances where conventional criminal proceedings are not immediately called for.

Many jurisdictions have the office of coroner, or their equivalent.

Coroners in England and Wales

A coroner is a judicial officer appointed by the Home Secretary, but paid by the local authority. To become a Coroner in England and Wales the applicant must be a lawyer or doctor of at least 7 years standing. This reflects the role of a Coroner, to determine the cause of death of a deceased in cases where the death was sudden, unexpected, occurred abroad, was suspicious in any way or happened while the person was under the control of central authority (e.g. in police cells).

Aside from the usual coroners, certain persons are ex officio coroners in limited circumstances - for example the Lord Chancellor is allowed to certify the death of someone killed in rebellion, but needless to say, this power has not been used in years!

The Coroner will decide whether to hold an Inquest. If he decides to, the most common verdicts which he may return include: death by misadventure, accidental death, unlawful killing, lawful killing, suicide, natural causes and an 'open verdict'.

In law, death by misadventure and accidental death are identical. Since there is no longer the death penalty in the UK for any offence (until 1999 it remained for 'high treason', 'setting fire to the Queen's docks in time of war' and 'piracy on the high seas', and certain Martial law offenses) lawful killing is rarely applicable, but can be given where, for example, the police firearms unit has shot someone.

Where any person is aware of a body lying in the district of a coroner, they have a duty to report it to the coroner. Failing to do so is an offence. Aside from the obvious, this can include bodies brought into the UK (for example, when Princess Diana died in France her body was returned to the UK and dealt with by a coroner in the UK. The coroner has an assistant (usually an ex-policeman) who will carry out the investigation on his behalf and on the basis of that the coroner will decide whether an inquest is appropriate. Where a person has died in the control of cental authority (in police cells, or in prison) an inquest must be held. In England, inquests are heard without a jury, unless the coroner wants one. However, cases in which a person has died under the control of central authority must have juries, as a check on abuse of governmental power.

The coroner's court is a court of law, and accordingly the coroner may summon witnesses, and people found to be lying are guilty of perjury.

Coroners also had a role in Treasure Trove cases, although this is no longer the case following the Treasure Act 1996. Their role (in what would appear to be totally unrelated to dead people) arose from the ancient duty of the coroner as a protector of the property of The Crown.

The post of coroner is ancient - dating from around the 11th Century, shortly after the Norman conquest of England in 1066. However, in its current form it dates from the 19th Century, and due to widespread dissatisfaction with the legal framework under which they operate, it looks likely that they will be reformed again in the coming years.