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The coroner's inquest, long regarded as a quiet and curious backwater of the English legal system, has been the subject of considerable controversy in recent years; controversy which has often centred on the investigation of deaths in custody. There is an interesting parallel between the current debates and those that raged during the mid-nineteenth century. Then, as now, the issue of the proper role (if any) of the coroner's inquest was closely linked to the question of political and legal accountability for deaths in custodial institutions. Present-day critics of the coroner are often accused of seeking to politicize what should be a neutral process of scientific and legal inquiry. As Lindsay Prior has argued, however, the de-politicization of death is itself a relatively recent phenomenon. As we aim to show in this chapter, the leading coroners of the Victorian period were fully aware of the political dimension of their work, and exploited it to ensure the survival of their office.
It was in the 1830s that coroners, after several centuries as a rather unimportant appendage of the criminal law, began to find a new role for themselves alongside the growing apparatus of governmental fact-finding and inspection. The creation of the Inspectorates of Anatomy (1832), Factories (1833) and Prisons (1835), together with the Births and Deaths Registration Act (1836), and the various inquiries initiated by the public health reformers, marked a new form of governmental involvement in what Foucault has termed the ‘bio-politics of population’, the investigation and regulation of the conditions affecting human life and death.
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