The Fascinating History of The Coroner’s Court: Part 1, The Bodies

Updated: Jul 7, 2020

This is part 1 of our 3-part series on the history of the Coroner’s Court:

The old Coroner's Court in Vancouver, BC. The Vancouver Police Museum

In session at the old Coroner’s Court with Glen McDonald, former Chief Coroner and Judge, presiding over an inquest.

Written by Sheena Koo

One of The Vancouver Police Museum’s biggest claims to fame is the fact that it was once the city’s Coroner’s Court and Autopsy Suite. Many bodies have lain on the cold steel tables that are still on display in the Autopsy Suite, and many more have waited patiently in the quiet, refrigerated refuge of the morgue—also still on display, heavy metal doors, pull-out body trays and all.

But what about the Coroner’s Court? What purpose did it serve?

To understand the purpose of a Coroner’s Court, you must first understand the formal procedures that occur after unnatural, unexpected, unexplained or unattended deaths in BC. They are as follows (via the BC Coroner’s Services website):

All deaths that are unnatural, unexpected, unexplained or unattended must be reported to a coroner. Upon receiving a report of a death, the coroner begins an investigation, which proceeds in one of three ways: Natural Death, Coroner’s Investigation or Coroner’s Inquest.

Natural Death

If, after reviewing the circumstances of death and speaking with the personal physician, the coroner determines that the death was due to natural causes, the coroner will contact the personal physician of the deceased to obtain information on medical history. If it is confirmed that the death is natural, the responsibility for completing the medical death certificate remains with the physician, and no further investigation from the Coroners Service is required….

Coroner’s Investigation

An investigation is conducted and a coroner’s report is written. When a death is reported to the coroner, he/she has the authority to collect information, conduct interviews, inspect and seize documents and secure the scene. Upon conclusion, the facts as determined by the investigation are released in a report. It sets out the coroner’s findings, including a cause of death and whenever possible, recommendations to prevent future deaths….

Coroner’s Inquests

Inquests are formal court proceedings, with a five-person jury, held to publicly review the circumstances of a death. The jury hears evidence from witnesses under subpoena in order to determine the facts of the death. The presiding coroner is responsible to ensure the jury maintains the goal of fact-finding, not fault-finding. Once an inquest is held, a Verdict at Inquest is written….

This particular Coroner’s Court was built in 1932, and, back in its active days, looked as it should have—like a small courtroom.  If there were ever any inquests to publicly review the circumstances of a death, subpoenaed witnesses and a small jury would sit in the room and help the Coroner ‘fact-find ‘not ‘fault-find‘ the details behind the death.