Law to ensure all deaths are examined by medical examiner or coroner

All deaths will be reviewed by a medical examiner or coroner in a move which ministers hope will give bereaved families “greater transparency on the circumstances surrounding the death of a loved one”.

Health minister Maria Caulfield said that from April, it will become a requirement that all deaths will become “legally subject to either a medical examiner’s scrutiny or a coroner’s investigation”.

Medical examiners are senior doctors who independently scrutinise causes of death.

Since 2019, NHS trusts have appointed medical examiners to scrutinise most deaths in hospitals and some community settings.

But this was on a non-statutory basis and the reforms will see the practice enshrined in law and will apply to all deaths – whether they occur in healthcare settings or elsewhere.

In England and Wales there are around 550,000 deaths every year and around 60,000 are notified to coroners.

This means an estimated 490,000 deaths will be scrutinised by medical examiners each year.

In a written ministerial statement, Ms Caulfield said: “The changes will mean that families will have greater transparency on the circumstances surrounding the death of a loved one.

“Medical examiners will always offer a conversation to the bereaved, providing an opportunity for them to raise questions or concerns with a senior doctor not involved in the care of the deceased.

“This will help deter criminal activity, improve poor practice and ensure the right deaths are referred to coroners for further investigation.”

The Department of Health and Social Care said medical examiners have reviewed 640,000 deaths in hospital trusts since 2019.

Officials said legislation will be laid in early 2024 and from April the new statutory regulations will come into force in England and Wales.

“Medical examiners ensure that if bereaved people have concerns after their loss, these can be raised as easily as possible, which is why it is great to see this progress towards a comprehensive system,” national medical examiner Dr Alan Fletcher said.

Dr Suzy Lishman, from the Royal College of Pathologists, said: “Medical examiners are already scrutinising the majority of deaths in England and Wales, identifying concerns and helping improve care for patients and support for bereaved people.

“The move to a statutory system in 2024 will further strengthen those safeguards, ensuring that all deaths are reviewed and the voices of all bereaved people are heard.”

Copyright (c) PA Media Ltd. 2023, All Rights Reserved. Picture (c) Jacob King / PA.