Fears over women’s inquests in new research

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deaths of women are much less likely to be reported to a coroner or investigated at an inquest than those of men, according to research carried out by a former top Yorkshire detective.

Max McLean, formerly the head of CID at West Yorkshire Police, says bereaved families are subject to a “postcode lottery” because of huge disparities between decisions made in different districts.

The former detective chief superintendent, now a PhD researcher at the University of Huddersfield, has published a new article in Medicine, Science and the Law, the official journal of the British Academy for Forensic Sciences.

His research into 10 coroner districts, including three in Yorkshire, found “substantial variations in reporting rates to the coroner” as well as disparities in the types of verdicts found.

The only area of consistency discovered by Mr McLean was that in all of the 10 jurisdictions, male deaths were more likely to be reported to the coroner by medics, at an average of 48 per cent compared with 37 per cent.

More of the male deaths reported to coroners went on to inquest – 16 per cent as opposed to nine per cent - and more men were deemed to have died unnaturally, at six per cent male compared with two per cent female.

Mr McLean said: “Women do, on average, die older than men. However coroners are at least vulnerable to the suggestion that the deaths of women are not perhaps investigated as thoroughly as those of men.

“This may be because of the ancient nature of the coroner’s jurisdiction and the way in which investigative techniques have developed in the coronial system.There is also some evidence that coroners individually favour particular verdicts according to whatever sex the deceased person is.”

An inquest is a legal investigation to establish the circumstances surrounding a person’s death, including how, when and why the death occurred.

It will be held in public at a coroner’s court in cases where a death was sudden, violent or unnatural, occurred in prison or police custody, or where the cause of death is still unknown after a post-mortem examination.

Mr McLean has called for a fully-fledged National Coroners’ Service overseeing a reduced number of districts and headed by fully-professional coroners investigating deaths in their local areas.

He said there was a tension between retaining the independence of those who administer justice and the need for greater consistency between districts.

He said: “From my research it is reasonable to infer that a bereaved family would receive a different outcome in two different coroner areas, where their loved one had died of identical facts presented to each coroner.”

He added: “Coroners will choose different verdicts according to local practice, so in some areas what might be deemed an accidental death might be death from natural causes elsewhere. A near identical caseload is no guarantee of similar decision making.”