Rowland Brothers International hosted a seminar for consuls at the US Embssy with a senior coroner to explain coronial procedures following the death of a foreign national.
The event coincided with The Big Conversation, a week of awareness raising about bereavement. The purpose of the seminar was to prepare consuls to assist grieving families.
Dr Fiona Wilcox, Senior Coroner for Westminster, told consuls that coroners have a statutory duty to investigate all unnatural, violent or unexplained deaths, as well as those occurring in custody or state detention – including foreign prisoners or immigration detainees.
Coroners are required to notify a diplomatic mission in the event of a death of one of their citizens. Consuls may request to have ‘Interested Person’ status to act on behalf of the family if there is an investigation.
A family cannot repatriate a body for burial until a coroner has signed an Out of England certificate to indicate that he or she is satisfied that there is no duty to investigate the death.
A post-mortem may be needed to find the cause of death, but Dr Wilcox assured consuls that coroners always consider religious and cultural needs and offer the option of non-invasive scans where possible. However, the cost of scans may have to be borne by the family. Interested Persons, including consuls, may request to see a copy of the post-mortem report.
If a coroner cannot release the body within 28 days they should notify Interested Persons. Delays may occur if a second, independent post-mortem is required when a criminal investigation into the death is likely. Interested Persons may also request a second post-mortem.
If a post-mortem cannot establish the cause of death, a coroner will open an inquest. These are public and consuls can attend and question witnesses if they have Interested Person status. An inquest is held to identify factors leading to a death to prevent a similar death occurring again.
A death cannot be registered until its cause has been established. In complex cases this may take time so to assist with the administration of the estate, a coroner can issue a ‘Fact of Death’ certificate. However not all countries accept these documents.
Dr Wilcox stressed the importance of liaison with consulates in cases where coroners are required to investigate an unexplained death that occurred abroad. Consuls can assist in obtaining statements and reports as well as identification evidence.
Dr Wilcox concluded that communication with consuls was key and urged consuls to supply the Coroners’ Society with up-to-date emergency contact information (see below).