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The Coroner's Jury
Originally all coroners' inquest hearings were held with a jury, who inquired (under the guidance of the coroner) and found the facts. In cases of suspected criminal killing, the role of the jury was like that of the grand jury, ie to decide whether to commit a person to stand trial at the assizes (later, the Crown Court) for murder or manslaughter, as appropriate. Like the grand jury, the coroner's jury numbered up to twenty-three men, and a verdict could be rendered by at least twelve of them. The coroner's jury therefore did not convict a person of an offence, any more than the grand jury did. Instead, it accused him, and made him stand trial for the alleged offence. At the subsequent trial, the accused would be tried by a judge sitting with a 'petty' jury of twelve persons, who originally had to be unanimous in their verdict.
Since 1927, however, a coroner's jury has only been necessary in a limited number of inquest cases, and in the remainder (the majority) the coroner sits alone. Moreover, the number of jurors is now reduced to a minimum of seven and a maximum of eleven. The four categories of case where a coroner's jury is currently required are set out in the Coroners Act, 1988, s 8(3). In broad terms, they are where it appears to the coroner that there is reason to suspect a death
(1) in prison;
(2) in police custody or as a result of police causing injury;
(3) which is reportable under separate legislation to a government department or officer or to the HSE;
(4) occurring in circumstances prejudicial to public health or safety.
The coroner also has power to sit with a jury in any other case where it appears to him that there is reason to do so. In practice, this is rare. Under the Coroners Act 1988 s 9, persons are qualified to sit as coroner's jurors only if they are qualified to sit as jurors in the Crown Court, the High Court and the county courts, and are not otherwise disqualified. The qualification is set out in the Juries Act 1974, s 1, has been significantly amended by the Criminal Justice Act 2003, s 321 and Sch 33, as from 5 April 2004, by virtue of SI 2004 No 829. The proposals (before they were enacted) were summarised in the Home Office Newsletter to Coroners No 41, dated 28 April 2003, para 4. The rules on excusal from service on the coroner's jury have also been amended, by SI 2004 No 921.
In December 2003, the Department for Constitutional Affairs published a consultation document on the summoning of jurors. Responses were sought by 27 February 2004.
The grand jury was supplanted in English law by the introduction of examining magistrates. Effectively it ceased to operate in England in 1933, and was completely abolished in 1948 (it still remains important in US criminal procedure). However, although the power of the coroner's jury to commit a person for trial for a homicide offence was recommended for similar abolition many times from the nineteenth century on, it persisted into the late twentieth century. It was finally removed by the Criminal Law Act 1977, but only after Lord Lucan had been named by the coroner's jury inquiring into the death of Sandra Rivett, his children's nanny, at an inquest in 1975. There are a number of websites dealing with this case, including the Lucan review and lordlucan.com, as well as numerous books.
A leaflet is published by the Northern Ireland Court Service on jury service in the coroner's court.
For further information on the coroner's jury, see Jervis on Coroners, paras 10-24 - 10-38.
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Last modified: Monday, 09-Aug-2004 08:53:13 BST by: Malcolm Bishop