Becoming a coroner – Q&A with Jacqueline Devonish

I’m not sure anyone is considering becoming a coroner because so little is known about him.

The role of coroners is unique and involves putting puzzle pieces together to understand the circumstances in which a person died.

I am a public school educated ethnic woman. I was never destined for such high office.

I was never coached on how to interview or pass exams and I consider my journey to be slower than others because I just didn’t “get it”. However, I believe it is a skill that can be taught.

My journey

After a diploma in commercial studies, I converted to law through the CPE.

I started practicing in 1991 as a general civil litigator, lawyer specializing in family law and transfer law. In 1994, I was a managing partner in a London law firm where I created and ran a litigation department.

I was appointed to the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) in 2006, where I served as president for 14 years.

I took my senior hearing rights in 2009 and got a contract to practice criminal law as a prosecutor for a government agency.

After a colleague told me he thought I would make a good coroner, I decided to explore the idea by observing different types of hearings in coroner’s courts.

I recognized that I could use my prosecutorial skills in analyzing evidence, and my court skills in “judicializing” and managing complex and lengthy cases.

I was appointed to my first post as Deputy Coroner in London in 2011. This is equivalent to a paid judge’s post with the HM Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS).

My role as coroner

The role of coroners is primarily to investigate the death. Coroners are judges who direct inquests, prepare cases, select witnesses and lead a team of coroner’s officers through to the inquest.

The investigative process is inquisitorial rather than adversarial.

A unique feature of the role is that there is no blame against an individual.

Those who appear in court are not judged. Rather, witnesses help the coroner and the bereaved family understand how the death occurred, with a view to learning lessons and preventing future deaths.

The puzzle element fits well with my professional curiosity. In 2013, I completed a degree in forensic science to deepen my knowledge of coroner’s inquest.

A unique place in the community – and the justice system

Recently adopted by the wider justice system, Coroners are unique in that we sit outside of HMCTS and are funded by local authorities. This layout stems from a long history dating back to the reign of Richard I in 1194.

We are in a strange position as members of the wider justice system sitting independently and working closely with the community.

For example, I am currently supporting my Local Nominating Authority in the implementation of the Race Equality Plan as an Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) Champion.

We build relationships, provide training and advice, and contribute to the development of death management policies for key stakeholders, including:

  • the local authority
  • the police
  • GPS
  • the ambulance service
  • the morgues
  • hospitals
  • undertakers
  • the jails
  • responsible for health and safety, and
  • various other investigative bodies

In addition to our office and time management skills – and value for money – I think the main strengths lawyers can bring to this role are:

  • customer service and accountability
  • case preparation, analysis, case and relationship management
  • policy development
  • staff management and well-being

How to become a coroner

The application process is managed by the local authority of the region and generally consists of:

  • an application form outlining your experience with the forensic competency framework
  • maintenance, which may vary from region to region

For coroners, the selection process is overseen by the Chief Coroner. For Deputy Coroner positions, the interview panel includes the Supervising/Regional Coroner alongside a local authority representative.

The committee makes a recommendation to the Chief Coroner, which is approved by the Lord Chancellor on behalf of Her Majesty The Queen.

Get the right experience

There is no qualifying test in the coroner’s application process. Although it is necessary to demonstrate a good knowledge of coroner law during the interview, candidates can demonstrate their skills and broader experience earlier in the process than other court roles.

There are far fewer coroners than other types of judges and as such it is probably more difficult to obtain a role if you are not a lawyer practicing in the coroners jurisdiction.

The key to a smooth transition from lawyer to coroner is to:

  • have practiced in a medical area of ​​law and have represented families and interested persons before coroners court, or
  • have quasi-judicial or judicial experience as a paid judge in another jurisdiction

Advice to notaries

Before submitting your application, observe as many coroner hearings as possible. The communal nature of the role tends to mean that coroners take different approaches.

After observing, you may want to consider contacting your local coroner to request an observation at work.

Lawyers are much less often in contact with judges than lawyers. So getting the right support is essential.

If you aspire to the bench, I would encourage you to undertake advocacy work with the coroners’ court and to build relationships with other lawyers and teams of coroners.

Lawyers must demonstrate through concrete examples that you have the basic skills for judicial office. You will need to build a bank of examples over time for your application form.

You should also practice answering interview questions.

Familiarize yourself with relevant legislation, rules, regulations, guidance and key cases.

All resources can be found at chief coroner’s website.