The forensic pathologist and the police
There must be a forensic pathologist available to respond to the police to aid their investigations 24 hours a day, 365 days per year. (In Greater Manchester there are 3 forensic pathologists who split the on-call time equally between them).
When on call, a forensic pathologist can be called-out to an investigation at any time of the day or night.
The forensic pathologist is working to help the police in the investigation (to establish whether or not a crime may have been committed), however, the autopsy itself cannot be carried out without prior authority from the coroner for the area, and is carried out on their behalf. This is because any death occurring without a clear cause of death must be reported to the coroner and it is their duty to establish this cause of death.
The police discuss the case with the forensic pathologist, who may or may not be required to attend the scene, and then a forensic post mortem is carried out.
This process may rule out or confirm suspicion. If a case becomes a murder inquiry, the evidence of the forensic pathologist may play an important role in establishing the events leading to the death of the deceased and if these events match up with those of witnesses and possible suspects.
The forensic pathologist and the coroner
The forensic pathologist acts on behalf of the coroner to establish a medical cause of death, therefore, whenever a death occurs and there is no clear cause to write on the Death Certificate (Medical Certificate of Cause of Death or MCCD), the coroner will instruct a pathologist to carry out a post mortem examination to determine the cause of death. This can often be a hospital pathologist if the death was straightforward and there was no legal element or element of suspicion. However, in cases where there may be a legal element (such as a post operative death where it must be established whether or not there was any medical negligence for example) or where any person, ranging from a member of family to the mortuary technician or pathologist, raises the question of suspicion, then a forensic pathologist takes over and a full investigation, including police investigation, is commenced.
Therefore, all autopsies are carried out under instruction from the coroner, and, if an inquest is opened in order to ascertain the cause of death, the coroner uses the evidence obtained from the post mortem report or may call on the pathologist to give evidence in person.
The forensic pathologist and the solicitor
The defence solicitor will call on the forensic pathologists in court cases where there has been bodily harm or death.
Often, in the case of a suspicious death where a defendant has been named, the forensic pathologist is asked to perform a second autopsy on the deceaseds body on behalf of a defence solicitor. It is a second autopsy because in any suspicious case the initial autopsy will have been carried out on behalf of the police, however, both of these autopsies are carried out under the jurisdiction of the coroner. The defence solicitor may, or may not, then use the findings of the pathologist in his case.
A typical scenario, in a case where there has been bodily harm but not death, would be where the solicitor asks the pathologist to examine a wound or wounds and comment on for example whether or not the wound/s could have been caused by a specific weapon or whether the type of wound/s could have come about in a particular scenario outlined by witness and/or the defendants statement.
There is a wide range of circumstances under which a defence solicitor may use a forensic pathologist and many queries he may have. Once the report of the forensic pathologist is complete the defence solicitor may, or may not, then use the findings in his case.