By Rama Ramanathan

Some are mad with me because in my last post (link) I wrote that in Malaysia, it's the police who must investigate deaths in custody. They say the responsibility lies with coroners.

I believe they’re partly right with respect to the law, especially when read through a UK lens, but mostly wrong in respect of practice here. I’ll explain why, through a UK lens.

A coroner’s inquest was conducted into the death of Princess Diana and her partner, Dodi – although the primary cause of their deaths was a traffic accident, in France. The inquest was presided over by an Assistant Deputy Coroner: Lord Justice Scott Baker, a senior judge.

“What? A Lord Justice acted as an assistant coroner?” you ask? Yes, because for the inquest to be legal, he had to be deputed coroner.

“Deputed?” you ask? Yes, because in the UK, the system of investigating deaths is very different than in Malaysia.

In Malaysia, there are 14 coroners. They’re all members of the judicial and legal service. They’re all Sessions Court judges. They’re all part-time coroners, which means that “the rest of the time,” they deal with cases such as robberies, illegal discharge of effluents, counterfeit products, etc. Their pay is fixed, according to standard pay-scales for full-time workers.

In Malaysia, perhaps 10 inquests were commenced in 2019.

In the UK, there are 32 full-time coroners. They’re not considered members of the judiciary. They’re funded by local authorities. And, there are over 70 part-time coroners. Full-timers do only coronial work, and their pay is fixed. “Part-timers” means something very different than in Malaysia. It means that “the rest of the time,” they work as lawyers or doctors. Their pay varies according to the volume of coronial/inquisitorial work they do.

In the UK, 30,000 inquests were commenced in 2019.

UK Coroners are required to appoint a deputy or assistant deputy to act on their behalf if they can’t do so themselves. A person can exercise the powers of a coroner only if he or she has at least the designation “assistant coroner.” That’s why Baker was appointed “assistant coroner.”

Now I’ll address the question of investigations.

In Malaysia, as I said above, coroners are Sessions Court judges. Their courtrooms are general courtrooms, in the same building complex as other courts. Courtrooms are pretty much the only building resources they control.

In the UK, many coroners have direct control of a courtroom located far from other courts. They have indirect control of a mortuary (where bodies are stored and autopsies may be performed). They have staff including investigation officers, often serving or retired police officers. The staff conduct pre-hearing investigations. They even record witness statements, develop and examine theories, conduct research, and liaise between families, pathologists and funeral firms.

It should now be very clear that coroners in the UK do in fact conduct investigations – unlike presidents of other courts in the UK and unlike coroners in Malaysia, because coroners in the UK have more resources and entirely different job expectations and training.

In Malaysia, it is only the police who conduct pre-hearing investigations, even of deaths in custody and other sudden deaths, for example of fireman Adib.

But those who say Malaysian coroners conduct investigations are technically correct. I say so because a coronial inquest is meant to be “inquisitorial,” not “adversarial” like other cases. While on hearing days in other cases the president is mostly a referee, in an inquest the president is also a party, free to ask questions and direct the conducting officer (DPP).

However, it is not far off the mark to say that Malaysian coroners rarely perform as inquisitors (investigators), because they’ve not been selected, equipped, or challenged to do so. They leave investigative work to the police, directed by the Public Prosecutor. It can be argued that the Criminal Procedure Code and the Police Act assign boots-on-the-ground investigation to the police.

In future posts I’ll touch on why there are so many inquests in the UK, how they’re different from inquests in Malaysia, “Regulation 28 reports,” the Chief Coroner and much more.