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The Future of Death Investigation in England and Wales (Advert Reference: RDF22/BL/LAW/MCART)

   Faculty of Business and Law

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  Prof C McCartney  No more applications being accepted  Competition Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

About the Project

The system for investigation of sudden, violent, or unnatural deaths in England and Wales is unique. Other jurisdictions have a variety of different systems. The coroner, an independent judicial officer (akin to a judge) is tasked with investigating such deaths via an inquest. An inquest is designed to investigate the death of an individual in a non-adversarial manner. The coroner has an inquisitorial role designed to establish facts. The present system, governed by the Coroners and Justice Act 2009 still reflects, in many ways, its roots in the twelfth century and the development of the role of the inquest in the nineteenth century.

In round numbers, there are half a million deaths in England and Wales each year- just under half are referred to the coroner. Of those, approximately 32,000 lead to inquests (500 with juries). The coronial service provides an important service to bereaved families seeking answers. The conclusion of an inquest can result in a report to prevent future deaths and recording the cause of death provides vital statistical information for the Office for National Statistics.

There have been several recent developments which have changed the landscape of the inquest and the role of the coroner. The Coroners and Justice Act 2009 included the requirement that a coroner hold a legal qualification (a medical qualification or a legal qualification was mandated prior to this date); the introduction of a medical examiner service; the appointment of a Chief Coroner to oversee training and work to centralise what has been a disparate local system. The 2009 Act was brought into force in 2013 and many of these changes are just beginning to take effect.  The Supreme Court recently changed the standard of proof in suicide and unlawful killing cases from the criminal standard (beyond reasonable doubt) to the civil standard (on the balance of probabilities) see R (Maughan) v Her Majesty’s Senior Coroner for Oxfordshire [2020] UKSC 46.

Although inquests are the main forum for death investigation, and the way England and Wales discharges its duty to investigate death under Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights, major recent investigations into deaths have led to discussion as to whether an inquest (under the 2009 Act) or an inquiry under the Inquiries Act 2005 is the most appropriate method. For example, the Westminster Bridge Attacks 2017 were investigated via an inquest. The investigation into the deaths arising from the fire in Grenfell Tower is an inquiry.

In 2020 a Judicial Committee took evidence on the Coroner Service. It reported in 2021 and made recommendations to improve the service to better serve the needs of bereaved families. This is the most recent in a long line of reports and proposals for reform, stretching back to the mid nineteenth century. Many past proposals for reform have been ignored, implemented late, or not at all.

There is wide scope in this project to pursue several lines of inquiry.

This project links to the research priorities of the Law and Society SIG and the Science and Justice RIG.

Eligibility and How to Apply:

Please note eligibility requirement:

  • Academic excellence of the proposed student i.e. 2:1 (or equivalent GPA from non-UK universities [preference for 1st class honours]); or a Masters (preference for Merit or above); or APEL evidence of substantial practitioner achievement.
  • Appropriate IELTS score, if required.
  • Applicants cannot apply for this funding if currently engaged in Doctoral study at Northumbria or elsewhere or if they have previously been awarded a PhD.

For further details of how to apply, entry requirements and the application form, see 

Please note: Applications that do not include a research proposal of approximately 1,000 words (not a copy of the advert), or that do not include the advert reference (e.g. RDF22/BL/LAW/MCART) will not be considered.

Deadline for applications: 18 February 2022

Start Date: 1 October 2022

Northumbria University takes pride in, and values, the quality and diversity of our staff. We welcome applications from all members of the community.

Principal supervisor Carole McCartney

Funding Notes

Each studentship supports a full stipend, paid for three years at RCUK rates (for 2021/22 full-time study this is £15,609 per year) and full tuition fees. UK and international (including EU) candidates may apply.
Studentships are available for applicants who wish to study on a part-time basis over 5 years (0.6 FTE, stipend £9,365 per year and full tuition fees) in combination with work or personal responsibilities.
Please also read the full funding notes which include advice for international and part-time applicants.


Helen Rutherford, The Coroner in an Emerging Industrial Society: John Theodore Hoyle and Newcastle upon Tyne 1857-1885 (PhD Newcastle University 2021)
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