Public misunderstands system, says coroner

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 18 January, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 18 January, 1998, 12:00am

THE public often misunderstands the purpose of inquests, a coroner has claimed.

The inquests are held to establish the identity of the deceased and the circumstances in which the death occurred.

Coroners are not entitled to look into allegations of negligence or decide who is to blame. These must be dealt with in criminal or civil proceedings which usually come after the inquest.

Verdicts can be given either by a jury or by the coroner. It may be decided that the death was unlawful, accidental, caused by misadventure or suicide. In cases where there is no clear answer, an open verdict is returned.

Unlike most court hearings, inquests do not take the form of a battle between two sides.

They are an inquiry into the death, controlled by the coroner who is usually aided by an officer from the Department of Justice.

Some lawyers have called inquests 'toothless' while others have urged that they be abolished.

However, Coroner Ian Thomas said: 'I make no apology for the system. It ensures that a watching brief is kept on behalf of the public as to the circumstances in which people die.' Inquests have recently drawn attention to such cases as young drug addicts who overdose, prisoners who use blankets to commit suicide and elderly women who fall into unfenced New Territories ponds.

Coroners aim to provide recommendations which can help prevent similar tragedies in the future.

When deaths are reported to them they order a postmortem examination of the body and can instruct the police to carry out an investigation. It is then decided whether there should be an inquest to further explore the death.

New laws relating to coroners are due to be put into effect in March, the first time in 30 years there has been a new Coroners Ordinance. It sets out to modernise the system and provide clearer details on how it must operate.