The duties of the coroner
Stabroek News
May 22, 2002

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Dear Editor,

I read in Friday's newspaper, April 26, 2002 how the DPP ordered the setting aside of a private criminal charge of murder brought by Mr. Eusi Kwayana against Senior Superintendent of Police Steve Merai, for the death of Mr. Shaka Blair.

I am rather surprised about the DPP getting involved in this matter at this stage.

The Coroner's system was not used in Guyana for a number of years and it would seem there is some mental confusion about the function of the Coroner's system which was established in 925 A.D. by King Athelstane. The duties were administrative as well as inquisitorial, and were carried out either by the Coroner alone or with the Sheriff; but certain of them were earmarked for the Coroner's office and he could perform them without being ordered by anyone to do so. Among these duties were the holding of an inquest over dead bodies and appeals (inspection of an individual's wounds, recording the acquisition against another individual, and if the wounds appeared likely to have been fatal, arresting the accused individual). The Coroner's duties included looking after the King's financial and other interests.

Blackstone put together the functions and status of the Coroner from the period when Edward l became King in l272, onwards..

"The office and power of a Coroner are also like those of a Sheriff., either judicial or ministerial, but principally judicial..................And consists, first in inquiring, whether a person is slain or dies suddenly, or in prison, concerning the manner of his death.

And this must be upon sight of the body, for if the body be not found, the Coroner cannot sit. He must also sit at the very place where death happened, and the inquiry must be made by a jury from 4,5, or 6 of the neighbouring towns over which he is to preside. If any be found guilty by this inquest of murder or other homicide, the Coroner is to commit them to prison for further trial and must certify the whole of his inquisition, together with the evidence thereon, to the Court of King's Bench, or the next assizes.

In 1877 a law was enacted requiring the inquest to be conducted whenever the Coroner had reasonable cause to suspect violence or unnatural death or when the cause was unknown. This had the effect of granting the Coroner the widest authority to investigate cases and was indeed in sharp contrast to the continental system where investigations were commenced only by the prosecutors or police officials.

Thus the Coroner system developed as a broad- spectrum investigative agency concerned with a large proportion of all deaths, including many non-violent deaths. In 1888 the election of the coroners by freeholders was abolished and an appointed system developed under which the head of the local government unit appointed the coroner. There remained however no minimal qualifications for office. These were established in 1926 when a law was enacted requiring five years experience as a medical practitioner, barrister or solicitor, if the individual was to qualify as Coroner".

Unless the system has been changed in Guyana by Act of Parliament then the DPP's step in the case mentioned has been premature.

Yours faithfully,

Dr. Edward E Simon

M.D., D. Path., DCP

(Lond), MBSCC

Editor's note:

The Director of Public Prosecutions is given specific power in the Constitution to discontinue at any stage before judgement is delivered any criminal proceedings undertaken by any person. This matter is still with the DPP who will presumably decide in the near future whether charges should be filed.

In any event, an inquest should be held, but the practice of holding inquests after police shootings was discontinued since the seventies, though required by law.