Interview: Coroner’s last verdict on the judgments of life and death

After 15 years and more than 7,500 inquests, West Yorkshire Coroner Roger Whittaker will soon step down after a distinguished career. Robert Sutcliffe reports.

DEATH has been his constant bedfellow for the last 15 years, but now Roger Whittaker is ready to start a new life.

West Yorkshire’s Coroner is set to hand down his last judgment and proclaim his last verdict for the last time in a distinguished career which has seen him occupy this position for the last 15 years.

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During this time, he has presided over 7,500 inquests and dealt with between 75,000 and 80,000 deaths covering the Calderdale, Bradford and Huddersfield areas.

But now, with his 70th birthday behind him, other passions are set to dominate – from walking in the Yorkshire Dales to reigniting his love-affair with vintage cars as well as spending more time with his beloved wife, Elizabeth, a ‘’belting’’ girl he has been married to for over 40 years and who has borne him four children.

Although renowned as a dapper dresser with an impressive stock of ties, bow-ties and silk scarves, his mind is anything but frilly.

His kindly, gentlemanly demeanour betrays a razor-sharp legal brain as any number number of perky lawyers will attest.

We meet in his office at Bradford Coroner’s Court where outside all is mayhem as diggers chew up the earth in a huge scheme designed to put Bradford back on the map including an amazing plan to provide the city with more water than Venice.

As always, he exudes a calm but generous bonhomie at his desk overflowing with files from yet-to-be decided cases. He says: ‘’I was going to go last year but various responsibilities persuaded me to stay a little longer.”

This is a guarded reference to a proposed scheme to bring his jurisdiction – Kirklees, Bradford and Calderdale under one umbrella with Leeds and Wakefield.

It is with mixed feelings that he goes, “partly from the job itself and particularly the people with whom I work – coroner’s officers, colleagues and administration staff.

“I have found it a fascinating and rewarding conclusion to my professional life.

“It can be at times very harrowing and everything you deal with is someone else’s grief and while one has to be sympathetic one has to deal with things that will upset people within an inquest however hard you try to avoid it.”

He recalls an incident in which a coroner’s officer – a breed whom he refers to as salt of the earth – who had to “literally peel a child off the road and yet within 20 minutes he was comforting the parents”.

Although coroners are not now obliged to see the bodies at an inquest – a rule that was changed before he became coroner aged 56 – there is no getting away from the often grisly details of his job.

His day starts in the office at 7.30am and he is usually back home in Ilkley at 7pm. Allied to that, he is on call at all hours and available at weekends.

Major concerns during his tenure have been the number of avoidable baby deaths he has found particularly grievous, especially as he is now the proud grandfather to eight children.

At one time, he says, the medical profession “thought co-sleeping was a good idea. Hopefully, that idea is changing”.

A campaigning coroner, his incessant warnings about the dangers of parents sleeping with their infants have been credited with reducing baby deaths in Bradford,

But he believes “for the sake of a few practicalities” even more lives could still be saved by parents avoiding co-sleeping.

He said although it was comforting that the number of baby deaths from over-lying, technically being suffocated, in parents’ beds had dropped since his warnings went national six years ago, he was still struck by he tragedies that continued to occur. “It still alarms me in these days of the safety-conscious that there are beautiful little children with their lives before them just being wasted for the sake of a few practicalities. And recently I have been dealing with deaths from Afghanistan which is harrowing.”

Although Mr Whittaker officially retires on Tuesday, a successor has not been appointed and for a time he will deputise when needed.

And there is no doubting that he will miss greatly the cut and thrust of the courtroom and the need for ultra-precise judgment and objectivity at all times.

He says: “I shall miss the responsibility and suddenly I will be free to do what I want to do when I want to do it and I anticipate that that will take some getting used to. I have found it to be a privilege to be appointed to such an office – the oldest extant judicial office in the country.”

The son of a Baptist Minister, he was a partner in a Keighley firm of solicitors from 1970 to 1996 before being appointed Assistant Deputy Coroner West Yorkshire (Western District) in 1994 .

This was a part-time appointment and when James Turnbull stepped down as Coroner he was the natural candidate to succeed him in 1996, though it was a very competitive business with 80 applicants to choose from.

He jokes that: “One of my sons said to my wife: ‘What are you going to do with Dad if he doesn’t get it?”

Of the inquests he has been involved in he adds: “I hope it has not only been professionally done but especially I hope it has been helpful to families who otherwise would not have reached closure.”

Although not a man to be overly concerned with the inevitable baubles of office, he enjoys the many civic receptions his position offers.

And he is proud of being appointed Deputy Lord Lieutenant of West Yorkshire in 2003. Few will take issue with the warm tribute which Mr Turnbull paid him in August 1994 when he was appointed Assistant Deputy Coroner.

He said the office was one which ‘’requires the administration of justice tempered with a great sensitivity and understanding of the needs and the feelings and the position of the persons who come into this court

“I am confident that Roger Whittaker is blessed with the capabilities and with the experience which will enable him to be sensitive to those needs and exercise the office bearing those needs in mind.’’