Copyright Notice, Limited Permissions, and Disclaimers
Many people are interested in coroners' records as a means of following up family history or genealogy. But the position is not as helpful, or as easy, as may be thought. Here are a few points to bear in mind, and suggestions for where to look.
Following an inquest, there is no such thing as a "coroner's report", in the sense of a structured narrative setting out what happened. (Things are different in Scotland.) The scope of the inquest itself is narrow, and the essential facts recorded at it are very few (identity, date, place and cause of death, and death registration particulars). They are recorded on a special form called an inquisition. But there will normally have been other documents at the inquest, such as statements of witnesses, postmortem examination report (if one was carried out), notes of evidence given etc. These are however by no means the whole story. Many people who get to see the file are disappointed to find that it does not answer some or even all of their specific questions.
But if there are any documents of this kind in a given case, they will have been retained as a (rather thin) file, initially by the coroner originally concerned, and then passed on to successors in office. By law, such documents must be retained normally for at least 15 years. Coroners' districts have been modified over the years, so it is quite possible that there is no direct successor to the one who held the original inquest, particularly if it took place a long time ago. But the coroner who currently has jurisdiction for the same area would still be a good starting point for inquiries. His contact details can be found (amongst other ways) by going to the DCMS' Revised Treasure Code of Practice, Part 2. If it not known which coroner dealt with a death, it will normally be mentioned on the death certificate. Every coroner keeps an index of all deaths reported to him or her, and so should be able to confirm whether a particular death was death with by their office.
Probably, however, any records relating to an inquest dating from more than 15 years ago will either have been destroyed, or will have been sent to the local archives service. In principle, it is up to the coroner to decide which to destroy and which to retain. In the latter case, the current coroner should know which archive service (ie town, county, national) would have been involved. Of course that service may have changed over the years. Whether they still have them will depend on local policies of destruction and retention.
Whether the coroner still has the file, or whether it is still in the hands of the archive service, an applicant will need the current coroner's permission to have access to it, unless it is more than 75 years old. Anyone who is a close relative, or applying on behalf of a close relative, such as a child of the deceased, should not normally encounter any difficulty in obtaining permission. (If there were some problem of national security, for example, that might be different.) If the file is available, and permission is given, an applicant will certainly have to travel to where it is held to consult it. Most archive services do not supply photocopies of such files by post, and some do not allow photocopying at all.
The 2nd edition of a guide to Coroners’ Records in England and Wales, by Gibson and Rogers, was published in 1997 by the Federation of Family History Societies, PO Box 8857 Lutterworth Leics LE17 9BJ (the 1st edition had been published in 1988). On the Corporation of London server is a detailed note on coroners' records in London. Some Middlesex, Paddington and Westminster Coroners' Records are preserved in the City of Westminster Archives. The Public Record Office also has material available on coroners, and publishes a leaflet on their records. There is also a short note on research involving coroners' records on teh Coroners' Society website.
The Public Record Office has also produced an Operational Selection Policy OSP6: Records created by and relating to Coroners, 1970 - 2000. Operational selection policies "are intended to be working tools for those involved in the selection of public records for permanent preservation". This particular policy "is intended to provide a clear direction to coroners, archivists and the records staff of central government departments in determining which records should be permanently preserved either at the Public Record Office or a local authority record office."
See also Jervis on Coroners, 12th ed 2002, paras 18-34 - 18-48.
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Last modified: Tuesday, 31-Mar-2009 15:23:49 BST by: Malcolm Bishop