Buckinghamshire’s Senior Coroner on how service helps grieving families through bereavement process

Buckinghamshire’s Senior Coroner deals with the most serious of subjects – death – on a daily basis, so it’s little surprise he is often asked whether he actually ‘enjoys’ his job.

“I reply that ‘enjoy’ is the wrong word but it’s a job that is very rewarding,” says Crispin Butler, who took up the post six months ago following the retirement of previous long-serving incumbent Richard Hulett.

“With the invaluable assistance of the dedicated team of Coroner’s Officers and our four Assistant Coroners, I am able to do something which helps bereaved families move forward and provide them with information and clarity about their loved one.”

Crispin said one of the most important ways the service supports bereaved families is by making the process – from death to inquest – as swift and hassle-free as possible.

He said Buckinghamshire compares favourably to other authorities in dealing with the majority of inquest cases within twelve weeks.

“Acquiring the formal death certificate which is issued after an inquest is an important part of the bereavement process, so the more efficiently that is achieved the better,” explained Crispin.

By law, the coroner must investigate all violent or unnatural deaths, deaths where the medical cause is not known and those that occur when an individual is detained by the state.

Crispin said this last category often surprises families of late, elderly relatives who are frequently residents of care homes, and who were subject to Deprivation of Liberty safeguards when they passed away. This means their freedom was technically restricted, for example for their own safety because they have dementia.

“It can come as a shock because families don’t understand why a coroner would be involved if their loved one has died of natural causes. Perhaps owing to American crime shows, people often confuse us with a forensic pathologist or a county coroner investigating crimes – but our role in the UK is, in more modern times, very much a judicial one in establishing facts and determining the cause of death. In Deprivation of Liberty cases we always try to gather the information as swiftly as possible so we can conclude a brief inquest within a matter of days.”

Crispin said the service has made great strides since 2012 after the coronial team relocated under one roof at Windsor End, Beaconsfield – individuals had previously been based over several sites.

Having the coronial team all in one place, alongside the court room, has ensured cases are dealt with as efficiently as possible, while the location also benefits from having a jury room and private rooms for families. The building also houses the Registrar of Births, Deaths & Marriages.

“It was something Buckinghamshire County Council put a lot of effort and resources into achieving and they should be rightly proud of the results,” he said.

There is well over 50 years’ experience within the coronial team. Families have a dedicated Coroner’s Officer appointed to assist them through the difficult process from initial contact through to its conclusion and that includes the support for the family at an inquest hearing. The team also assist with appointments for families to attend the registrars once the coroner’s involvement in the case has come to an end.

Crispin, 47, was born in Amersham and attended Thorpe House School in Gerrards Cross and the Royal Grammar School in High Wycombe. After studying law at the University of London and the College of Law, York he took his first job as an articled clerk at Winter-Taylors in High Wycombe.

His career as a solicitor was, for many years, involved with commercial property, although for the past seven years he dealt exclusively with wills and probate, gaining much experience in the process of bereavement. He had also been an Assistant and Deputy Coroner in Bucks on a part-time basis since 2001, while also working for Browns Solicitors – a role he left to take up the post of Senior Coroner in April.

Martin Phillips, Cabinet Member for Community Engagement and Public Health, said: “Anything that makes the grieving process easier for bereaved families has got to be worthwhile, so it was pleasing to hear Crispin’s comments on how decisions made by the council in 2012 are making a real difference today.”