Observations Body Politic

Why the delays in counting the dead?

BMJ 2014; 349 doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.g4305 (Published 09 July 2014) Cite this as: BMJ 2014;349:g4305
  1. Nigel Hawkes, freelance journalist, London
  1. nigel.hawkes1{at}btinternet.com

Few institutions have proved as slow to reform as the 800 year old coronial system

Death may be final, but in England and Wales it isn’t the last word: you aren’t officially dead until somebody else says so. That depends on establishing a cause of death—and if that should require an inquest, the fact of death goes unrecorded, sometimes for years.

Just how long depends on local coroners, who enjoy considerable autonomy. A group of charities recently wrote a letter to the prime minister calling for urgent changes to the law, saying that it can take from six months to two and a half years to register a death. Such delays have a significant effect on research and public health, not to mention the burden on grieving families who cannot close the book on the life of a loved one.

I wish the charities well, because their cause is just, but few institutions have proved as difficult to change as the coronial system. Set up in the wake of the Norman conquest and older than Magna Carta, the office of coroner is an institution that has survived the Reformation, the Glorious Revolution, the growth of democracy, Victorian busybodying, and everything that more recent reformers have …

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