Appraisal and selection of coroners’ inquest files

Overarching principles

National guidance on selection of records relating to the coronial system is contained in The National Archives’ Operational Selection Policy (OSP) 6. This advice complements OSP 6, refreshing the wording on appraisal of records held locally to reflect updated working practices.

These criteria comprise a good practice model developed and implemented by a PoD with substantial and significant holdings of coroners’ inquest files. While there is some scope for other PoDs to adapt this to suit local circumstances, it is offered with the explicit intention of encouraging and supporting consistency of practice across the sector. Any PoD proposing appraisal criteria which deviate significantly from this model would therefore need to secure agreement in advance of implementation. In certain circumstances this model can also be used for the retrospective appraisal of inquest files that have not previously been subject to a formal appraisal process or received New Burdens funding. The National Archives should be contacted for advice on retrospective appraisal.

Non-inquest cases should not normally be selected and transferred to the PoD under the Act (they may be held by the PoD as part of local authority administrative support to the coroner).

Inquest case files may be selected in their entirety, but as the registers give summary details of all cases, the PoD may issue local guidance for selection of only a portion of these for transfer under the Act. Where resource is limited, PoDs may agree to undertake all or part of the selection process by prior agreement but have discretion to charge the coroner for this work if they do so. It is expected in all cases that at least a substantial minority of cases will be retained.

Weeding the content of individual inquest files is no longer considered best practice. This advice offers appraisal criteria which will enable consistent decisions and avoid random sampling and weeding.

Staff undertaking appraisal should take steps to avoid unconscious bias regarding protected characteristics.

Criteria for appraisal of inquest files (London Metropolitan Archives)

The following selection criteria for the appraisal of inquest files were developed by London Metropolitan Archives in consultation with the Chief Archivists in Local Government Group (CALGG) of the Archives and Records Association (ARA) and The National Archives (TNA).

Inquest files to retain for permanent preservation:

  • Cases which set a precedent in law or practice (Coroners to alert to these cases.)
  • Census years in their entirety
  • Cases where an individual, accident or crime is the subject of prolonged or repeated interest from the media
  • Murder
  • Manslaughter
  • Unlawful killing
  • “Unknowns” where a person has not been identified
  • Deaths in prison or custody
  • Significant industrial and work-related accidents
  • Cases of medical negligence, or that illuminate medical care/treatment
  • Industrial disease (including specific industries e.g., coalmining under the British Coal Respiratory Compensation Scheme)
  • Famous people/prominent figures
  • HIV/AIDS-related deaths
  • Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS – also known as Cot Death)
  • Sudden Arrhythmic Death Syndrome (SADS – also known as Sudden Adult Death Syndrome)
  • Sickle Cell Disease – keep only if sickle cell was a cause of death
  • Hospital-caught infections such as MRSA
  • Deaths related to an epidemic or pandemic (e.g., SARS; COVID-19)
  • Deaths related to civil disturbance
  • Deaths arising from acts of terrorism
  • War service
  • Major maritime/rail/road/air accidents/crashes/disasters/fires with multiple victims and/or involving criminal activity
  • Road traffic accidents where criminal proceedings ensued or involved criminal activity (including “hit and run”), or that involved members of the emergency services while on duty
  • Cases which are culturally and socially important in the context of their period, such as cases involving auto-eroticism in the 1970s and 1980s
  • Cases involving sexual abuse of children or young people
  • Anything unusual, significant or that illuminates social, moral, or cultural issues of the time

Inquest files which would not be selected for permanent preservation unless they are significant or unusual / the jury has added a rider and / or the coroner has made a recommendation:

  • Accidental deaths
  • Jury cases
  • Misadventure
  • Open verdicts
  • Suicide
  • Alcohol-related
  • Connected with substance (drugs or other) dependence and abuse
  • Deaths in hospitals, hostels, nursing homes, hostels, etc.
  • Fires (but see exceptions above)
  • Road traffic accidents (but see exceptions above)
  • Geriatric cases

Inquest files to destroy:

  • Treasure trove
    Supplementary Guidance on how to implement the criteria (London Metropolitan Archives)

The following factors should be considered when appraising inquest files for permanent preservation:

Context

Does the death have a connection to a significant event and is this pertinent? For example, a fire caused by someone using a candle during a planned power cut in the 1970s.

Photographs

Photographs may become more numerous and explicit with time. Photographs at the beginning of the period were usually taken to show the scene of death, but not the body, so can be useful for revealing historical detail such as industrial premises.

Cases of medical negligence, or that illuminate medical care/treatment
Look out for cases involving Halothane which was used as an anaesthetic.
Industrial disease, such as Asbestosis, usually directly identified.
HIV/AIDS/SIDS/SADS – these conditions are not always directly identified, especially in the initial period, so look out for cases.

Suicide

With suicides of women of child-bearing age, look at the post-mortem examination to see if the woman was pregnant. This may be pertinent. Maternal suicide in this period has been the subject of academic research.
Look out for suicides of children (i.e., under 16s); child suicide in this period has been the subject of academic research.
Look out for significant details about mental illness and its treatment.

Fires

Look out for fires in high-rise tower blocks, especially if questions over evacuation procedure or building fabric are involved

Do not:

  • Spend more than a day a week on appraising coroners’ inquest files. 
  • Work alone unless unavoidable except for brief periods or single sessions
  • Look at photographs unless unavoidable /necessary (but see 3.2 above). 

Do:

  • Look through the Notes of Evidence file methodically.
  • Check the name, age, address, and occupation of the person on the front of the file.
  • Check the cause of death and verdict on the back of the file.
  • Look at the Coroner’s Officer’s General Report (usually at the front of the file)
  • Look at the Post-mortem Examination
  • Always look through the file to see if there is more detail in the remaining documents. It is only when doing this that nuances become apparent which enable the appraiser to make an informed decision starting with the criteria but based on all the available information. It also enables trivial files to be weeded out.

Documents to look out for include:

  • Witness statements;
  • Expert depositions, statements, reports, and correspondence;
  • Suicide notes;
  • Transcripts of proceedings (especially Coroner’s summing up);
  • Newspaper cuttings, subsequent correspondence.

MAKE YOUR DECISION to keep or destroy based on the criteria supplemented by the information obtained as above.