At a formal dinner this coming Saturday Caroline will formally become President of the Coroners Society of England and Wales – and as her husband in my blog this week I think it is only right and proper to acknowledge my “capable wife” (Prov 31.9). To quote Scripture again: “Many women have done excellently, but you surpass them all”.
Coroners trace their office back to the reign of Reichard I in 1194, although the post might have earlier origins. Previously justice had largely depended upon the whim of the feudal lords and King’s sheriffs, who were generally corrupt and inefficient. Richard in seeking to control the administration of justice created a new judicial official to ‘keep the pleas’ of the Crown – in Latin the title was custos placitorum coronae from which title the new office holders were known first as ‘crowners’ and subsequently ‘coroners’. Her Majesty’s Coroners are still independent judicial office holders, accountable to the Lord Chancellor. Although appointed and paid for by the Local Authority, they are not employed by Local Government. They investigate deaths that have been reported to them if it appears that
- the death was violent or unnatural
- The cause of death is unknown
- Or the person died in prison, police custody or another type of state detention.
In the words of Lord Thomas Bingham:
It is the duty of the coroner as the public official responsible for the conduct of inquests whether he is sitting with a jury or without to ensure that the facts are fully, fairly and fearlessly investigated…. He must ensure that the relevant facts are exposed to public scrutiny, particularly if there is evidence of foul play, abuse or inhumanity. He fails in his duty if his investigation is superficial, slipshod or perfunctory….
Although there is no Biblical precedent for the office of coroner, the treating of everybody as equal in the sight of the law has its roots in Gen 1.26, where men and women are created “in the image of God”. Not just the living, but also the dead are to be treated with respect. As William Gladstone once memorably said:
Show me the manner in which a nation cares for its dead and I will measure with mathematical exactness the tender mercies of its people, their respect for the laws of the land, and their loyalty to high ideals.
Since September 2000, when Caroline became a full-time coroner, she has rendered outstanding service to the bereaved people of Essex – 24/7. With well over 7,500 reported deaths she has the busiest and the most complex jurisdiction in the country. Under her leadership she has transformed the way in which her jurisdiction has run: the courts have all been centralised and there is now a purpose-built coroners court in Chelmsford; she has a full-time area coroner and four deputy coroners; her eighteen officers, together with five administrative case workers, all of whom now work together in County Hall and their management has been transferred from the police to the local authority; two jurisdictions have been successfully merged; and she was responsible for setting up the first coroners support service outside London, which is now staffed by some ten volunteers. In addition, over the years she has been very active in the service of the Coroners Society for England and Wales: she created two training programmes for new coroners and pioneered mentoring for coroners; she is a long-serving member of the Law Review Committee; she is also a member of the select cadre of DVI coroners (in that role she oversaw the repatriation of the victims of the Sharm-el-Sheikh bombings).
Her contribution as a coroner has been recognised by her fellow coroners: she has been President of the East Anglian Coroners’ Society as also President of the South East England Coroners’ Society. Now for the next twelve months she becomes President of the Coroners Society – President in the original sense of ‘presiding’ at meetings (as distinct from the secondary American sense of ‘governing’ or ‘commanding’. I congratulate her!