Star Interview: Sheffield coroner's belief in justice for the living and dead

It's a strange feeling to be standing, alive, inches from a row of mortuary fridges each with space for five bodies - a sense, perhaps, of how little separates the living from the dead.

Tuesday, 12th September 2017, 11:11 am
Updated Tuesday, 6th March 2018, 10:15 am

But here we are, at the Medico-Legal Centre in Upperthorpe, where about 1,000 bodies are brought every year, and hundreds of inquests are held annually in a bid to settle the circumstances of Sheffield and Barnsley’s most unusual and sudden deaths.

From cycling accidents to tragic falls and appalling mishaps in steel factories, South Yorkshire coroner Christopher Dorries has presided over a large proportion of the region’s cases since he was appointed in 1991.

“We don’t deal with normal death here,” he says.

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“This is a tough job.”

The centre - which houses the public mortuary, coroner’s court and investigative officers in one place - is something of a building site at present, as a £2.11 million refit is under way. There will be a second courtroom for inquests, upgraded body fridges and an overhauled post-mortem suite, among many other improvements.

Contractors have started work at the building, and are set to stay until December. The centre is owned by Sheffield Council, which is funding the refurbishment.

“Good on Sheffield that they’re prepared to dig in their pockets to try and make life easier for the horribly bereaved,” says Christopher.

The revamp is timely as the workload of the coroner and his staff has increased - this doesn’t necessarily mean more deaths are being reported, but across his patch the yearly number of inquests has risen from about 330 a decade ago to between 650 and 750 today.

This leap in numbers was partly triggered by the response to the crimes committed by Britain’s biggest serial killer, Harold Shipman. The GP, who murdered at least 215 of his patients, cunningly exploited a loophole by falsifying details on his victims’ death certificates to avoid detection. In a grim coincidence, Shipman’s body was brought to the Medico-Legal Centre in 2004 after his prison suicide, and lay there for more than 12 months before he was finally cremated.

For the past nine years Sheffield has been the test site for the Government’s ‘medical examiner scheme’, where a doctor works closely with the coroner to scrutinise files and make sure an independent medic agrees a cause of death.

“It’s a great anti-Shipman measure but it’s also great help and guidance for GPs and others,” says Christopher.

“If you divide all of the people who die, half - broadly speaking - do not need to come to the coroner. A doctor does a certificate for them. The other half come to the coroner, and there’s a complete disconnect between the two sides.

“If I’ve got a medical examiner looking at one half, it makes sense that he’s going to say ‘I’ve found one for you’.

“It’s a very good thing but whether it ever happens across the country, I don’t know. I think it probably will. It costs money, and nobody’s got any.”

The purpose-built Medico-Legal Centre, on Watery Street, opened in 1977, replacing the old coroner’s court on Nursery Street. In its early days it was world-renowned - experts would travel from across the globe to see how its various functions had been combined under one roof.

The Forensic Science Service used to have a presence there too, but the department was closed controversially by the Government in 2012 amid claims the unit was losing money - and anyway, there are ‘difficulties in attracting forensic pathologists’, says Christopher.

“Many are called but few are chosen. There’s a really gruelling, long way to go to get on the Home Office-approved list.”

Sheffield’s three forensic pathologists also cover Manchester, and were heavily involved in the aftermath of the arena bombing which killed 22 concertgoers and parents in May.

“This mortuary would have been able to deal with any of the recent disasters - the bombings and things like that, with the possible exception of Grenfell Tower, that’s a bit bigger.

“Hillsborough would be dealt with differently these days. That’s not to say it wasn’t dealt with properly at the time, but disaster identification work has progressed massively in the last 25 years. We could probably deal with about 70 bodies downstairs.”

Christopher’s years of experience haven’t stopped him ruminating on potential catastrophes that might come his way.

“I worry about a double-decker bus coming off the Tinsley viaduct straight into the Meadowhall car park, or landing on a tram. You would like me to think about that sort of thing, because if I’m thinking about it, hopefully we’re prepared to deal with it.”

There’s a healthy streak of black humour in his asides - necessary, clearly, to get through the working day.

“You could have a heart attack,” he tells me, illustrating how unexpected death can be.

“No, you’re too young. But let’s be cheerful, you could have a stroke.”

The mortuary isn’t strictly the coroner’s domain - it’s operated by the council and is run by Ruth Bell, who manages the overall building. Eight coroner’s officers, employed by the police, work at the centre.

The new second courtroom is already complete and fitted out - “It’s a lot more intimate,” says Christopher - and the main court is getting refurbished too.

While admiring the new public gallery and press seats, he admits to being ‘very clear’ to families and witnesses about the public nature of inquests.

“People say ‘We don’t want the press in’, and we say ‘We’re terribly sorry, but the press are entitled by law to be here, as is anyone else’.”

In 2013 the UK’s first digital autopsy service opened on the premises - a £3 million resource offering post-mortem examinations using a CT scanner instead of the traditional scalpel.

“With a good 50 per cent of cases, probably higher, we don’t need to take a knife to the body after that, we’ve got enough information.”

Christopher is originally from Warrington, and started as a solicitor before another coroner, a doctor, recommended it as a ‘good job’. Candidates must be either a lawyer or a doctor of not less than five years’ standing.

Married, he lives not far from Sheffield city centre with two ‘very nice but noisy’ Basset hounds. Aged 64, he was awarded an OBE in 2006, and is committed to his post for another two-and-a-half years.

“I’m still here 25 years later, so it must be alright. It’s a nice job to have because you feel, sometimes, you can actually do some good.”

‘Cases are about real people’

Christopher Dorries ‘tries very hard’ not to get caught up in the emotion of a case - but believes a coroner shouldn’t be an ‘automaton’.

“You do try very hard to remember all of these things you’re talking about are real people. They’re not just an overdose, or a defective tyre.”

He wrote the go-to legal textbook about coroners and inquests, and says he is a ‘huge supporter’ of the court process.

“It’s about people finding out things they are entitled to know. Sometimes people don’t want to tell them, and we can dig - I have lots of powers - and sometimes it’s because no-one’s realised their relevance.

“We take the incident and we look at it slowly, calmly and carefully. I’m thorough. I will always say to hospital managers ‘Come to the inquest, because you’ll find out something you didn’t know’.”

Coroners can also be valuable in preventing future deaths. At the Cutlers’ Hall in Sheffield, a man looking for the toilets once died after falling down a set of steep stairs that had no handrail on one side. Christopher urged bosses to install a second bannister.

“Every time I go in I think ‘That’s my handrail’.”