Role at the heart of life and death


Rhian Waller

THERE are 96 coroners in England and Wales.

This means John Gittins, a full-time coroner who oversees the North Wales East and Central district covering Wrexham, Flintshire, Denbighshire and Conwy, has a fairly unusual job.

Mr Gittins, 49, a Wrexham man born and bred, was originally a solicitor in a Wrexham firm.

He said: “I started in a family firm my sister and I set up in Wrexham called Gittins McDonald Solicitors. John Hughes, who was the coroner in addition to being a solicitor at the time, joined our practice.

“He appointed me deputy coroner in 1999 and I became acting coroner about three years ago when John started struggling with ill health.”

Sadly, Mr Hughes, who came from Connah’s Quay, died of cancer in 2011.

Mr Gittins continued to work as acting coroner until he was appointed as the full-time coroner in May.

He now works from the council chambers in Ruthin, Wrexham and Llandudno and oversees almost 2,500 reported deaths a year.

Mr Gittins said: “My responsibility is to carry out investigations into deaths that are violent, accidental, occur in custody, or if the cause is unknown.

“In the first instance, a death will be reported to me, often by a doctor but not always.

I’ll talk with the person who reports it to me and then have a discussion with the doctor overseeing the case. They will tell me if they believe they know what caused the death.

“If there’s enough information, based on a balance of probability, I will give permission for a death certificate to be signed by the doctor and for the death to be registered.

“In relatively straightforward cases, this can take a matter of hours. It’s very efficient. Most of the time, we’re able to release a body back to the family within 24 hours."

Even in cases where Mr Gittins deems a post-mortem is necessary, usually taking place at the Maelor Hospital in Wrexham or Glan Clwyd Hospital in Denbighshire, the aim is to release the body within 48 hours to allow for funeral arrangements.

The most visible and often the most harrowing part of his job is when an inquest takes place in coroner's court.

Mr Gittins said: “A coroner’s court can be held anywhere, apart from licensed premises. But most often they are in official buildings, although I’m independent from the local authority.

“An inquest takes place if, after a post-mortem, I believe the situation warrants further investigation. But the body would be released – we don't keep them until the inquest, ever.

“I work with four coroner’s officers, two in Wrexham and two in St Asaph. They talk to the family of the deceased, medical professionals and the police as well as looking at any medical or forensic reports.

“I’ll then convene or reconvene an inquest hearing.”

A coroner's court is not a criminal court. The purpose of an inquest is to establish who died, when and where they died and what caused the death.

During the inquest, the evidence gathered by the coroner’s officers will be considered and testimony from witnesses, medical professionals or other authorities may be given.

Mr Gittins said: “My job isn’t to say who is to blame. I have no powers to apportion liability but I do have a responsibility to advise on whether any measures can be taken to prevent future deaths.

“This can include things like installing railings near the site of an accident, reducing the speed limit by a road collision or signposting accident blackspots. I can also advise on deaths in hospital if I feel the procedures need to be tightened up.”

It can be difficult to discuss, often in painful detail, the circumstances surrounding a loved one’s death.

He said: “The coroner’s role is unique. Unlike courts of law, our position is an investigatory rather than being a magistrate or judge listening to two competing accounts. We ask questions and sometimes those questions are difficult.

“Some of the deaths are truly tragic and you are discussing them with and in front of family members who are in very great difficulties. It’s about being compassionate but you also have to be objective and professional.

“I have to be in a position where I can question the police, the local authority or anyone else involved.”

Mr Gittins could not comment on individual cases for obvious reasons, but in the last few years he has been involved in some of the most sensitive cases in the area.

On July 18, Mr Gittins recorded a verdict of accidental death when dementia sufferer Raymond Braisdel, 69, of Holt Road Wrexham, was hit by three cars after walking out in front of traffic on the A55 at Rhuallt Hill.

In September last year, he held an inquest into the deaths of Johnathan Cassidy-Jones and Dale Williams, both 18, of Ruabon, who were killed when the car they were travelling in along the Horseshoe Pass near Llangollen crashed through railings and hit two trees.

After the incident, Denbighshire Council cut the speed limit, a measure Mr Gittins said could save lives.

He said: “I do find the job hugely rewarding, even though it is challenging. We now ‘conclude’ inquests rather than closing them.

“This reflects a move away from harsh, law court-style language. It’s more human.”

It also, arguably, illustrates an important part of the role – that of answering any questions a grieving family might have and putting their minds at rest.

Mr Gittins said: “There is an element of closure, yes. I’ve had a great deal of thanks from the people I’ve spoken to over the years. It’s a real privilege to hold this position.”

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