Monday, 2 July 2012

The first involvement of the coroner

A body is found.  The police are called.  The death appears unusual.  One of the first things for the police to do is to inform the coroner, in the case of Dr Kelly's death this was the Oxfordshire County Coroner Nicholas Gardiner.

A person who has been appointed as a coroner unsurprisingly has to have either a legal or medical backgroundIn the most perfect of worlds they would have had some experience in both these disciplines.  Mr Gardiner, now retired, came to his post via the legal route
Dr Kelly died in unusual circumstances and it seems to me that Mr Gardiner would have been more dependent than usual on the reports from the forensic pathologist and toxicologist as to cause and mode of death.

I'm fascinated by the relationship between coroner, pathologist and the police, something I've thought about because of the death of Dr Kelly.  Fundamentally the pathologist is answerable to the coroner and in our case Dr Hunt sent his reports to Mr Gardiner.  Obviously the post mortem report is likely to be of great interest to the police.  What I haven't investigated is, whether as a matter of protocol, the pathologist only writes to the coroner with him/her in turn passing the report to the police or whether the police are automatically copied in when the coroner is sent the report.

Having just written the last paragraph I now see on Dr Hunt's report published on the internet on 22 October 2010 the words: This is a confidential report to the coroner and should not be disclosed to a third party without his permission.  The same report is on the Attorney General's website but recast as a police witness statement and thus doesn't include the reference to it being a confidential report to the coroner.  I hope that this makes sense.

Mr Gardiner wrote to the Attorney General's office on 6 May 2011 
The specifics relating to the morning of the 18th are recorded in this paragraph:

To turn to this particular case the discovery of Dr Kelly's body was reported to me by the police on the morning of the 18th July.  From the outset it was clear that this was going to be a high profile case.  Amongst matters I would have discussed with the police at that point would have been the identity of the pathologist who would be carrying out the post mortem examination.  We were both clear in our minds that this would have to be what is commonly called a Forensic Pathologist, that is one recognized by the Home Office, we decided that Dr Hunt would be appropriate.  There are a number of facts governing this choice although the number of Home Office recognized pathologists is quite small and they are not always available.  Dr Hunt was available and he actually lived locally and so was able to get to the scene quite quickly.  As you know he did go to the scene and his observations are recorded.  

On his first visit to the Hutton Inquiry on 3 September ACC Page said: 

We were very anxious, from the outset, to ensure the most thorough possible examination of the scene. I spoke to the Oxfordshire coroner, Mr Gardiner, and we agreed between us that we would use a Home Office pathologist, which is a very highly trained pathologist. 

In his 2007 book Norman Baker states that there are 43 forensic pathologists on the Home Office register.  Unless Dr Hunt had recently moved into the area then I suspect that he had conducted a large number of post mortems for Mr Gardiner.  Rather like a retained fireman a pathologist has to be "on call" and one imagines that coroners are kept up to date regarding availability of pathologists, when they are on holiday, etc.  

An earlier post  described Dr Hunt's location when the police called him to attend the scene at Harrowdown Hill

In his report Dr Hunt states:  'The facial soft tissues were dissected to the level of the bone'.  This has some relevance to my next post.

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