It is in the general interests of the community that any sudden, unnatural or unexplained deaths should be investigated and, to reflect this, the role of the Coroner has adapted over the eight centuries since the office was formally established in 1194, from being a form of medieval tax gatherer to an independent judicial officer charged with the investigation of sudden, violent or unnatural death.
The duties of the early coroners were varied, and included the investigation of almost any aspect of medieval life that had the potential benefit of revenue for the Crown. Suicides were investigated, on the grounds that the goods and chattels of those found guilty of the crime of 'felo de se' or 'self murder' would then be forfeit to the crown, as were wrecks of the sea, fires, both fatal and non-fatal, and any discovery of buried treasure in the community which, as 'treasure trove', remains one of the coroner’s duties today, although it is likely that this particular medieval duty will finally be removed. Sudden death in the community had always been considered important since the early days of the office and was also investigated by coroners, although for reasons far different to those of today.
After the Norman Conquest, to deter the local communities from a continuing habit of killing Normans, a heavy fine was levied on any village where a dead body was discovered, on the assumption that it was presumed to be Norman, unless it could be proved to be English. The fine was known as the 'Murdrum', from which the word 'murder' is derived and, as the system developed, many of the early coroners' inquests dealt with the 'Presumption of Normanry' which could only be rebutted by the local community, and a fine thus avoided, by the 'Presentment of Englishry'.
The Coroner system continued to adapt over the centuries, but in the nineteenth century major changes relating to the investigation of death in the community occurred. In 1836, the first Births and Deaths Registration Act was passed, prompted by the public concern and panic caused by inaccurate 'parochial' recording of the actual numbers of deaths arising from epidemics such as cholera.
In January 1846 Sergeant William Payne Esq. wrote to coroners to form the Coroners' Society of England and Wales. He was HM Coroner for Southwark and the City of London - Inaugural Minutes of the Society
There was also growing concern that given the easy and uncontrolled access to numerous poisons, and inadequate medical investigation of the actual cause of death, many homicides were going undetected.
By then, the coroner's fiscal responsibility had diminished and the Coroners Act of 1887 made significant changes here, repealing much of the earlier legislation. Coroners then became more concerned with determining the circumstances and the actual medical causes of sudden, violent and unnatural deaths for the benefit of the community as a whole.
The coronership at present responds to and investigates those deaths which have been referred to it for a wide variety of reasons (just over one third of all deaths in England and Wales at the present time), rather than pro-actively screening all deaths that occur, whether in the community or in hospital, and then determining which ones should be subjected to further scrutiny.
The latter approach is not allowed for by the law as it currently stands but, in the wake of Dr Shipman’s conviction, there have been three separate inquiries looking at the way in which sudden death is investigated, and it is likely that there will ultimately be new legislation and subsequent changes to the way in which all deaths are investigated and the manner in which coroners carry out their duties.
The Coroners and Justice Bill was introduced into Parliament in January 2009, following extensive consultation, and became an Act on 12 November 2009. However the current law relating to coroners remains the Coroners Act 1988 (which is based upon the 1887 legislation) as the 2009 legislative provisions await implementation.
The Office of Coroner has survived for over eight hundred years by evolving to meet the changing needs of the society that it is there to serve, and it continues to welcome any beneficial and positive changes which will enable it to develop and build on the service it provides to the public in general and the bereaved in particular.