Solicitor judges

Becoming a coroner – Q&A with Jacqueline Devonish

Jaqueline Devonish was convinced her background meant she was not destined for judicial office. Now area coroner for Suffolk, she explains how the unique role allows her to support her local community while making use of her professional experience, skills and curiosity.

Jacqueline Devonish is a black woman with shoulder-length braids, wearing a red and gold silk scarf. She is looking at the camera, with a neutral living room in the background
Photograph: ©Simply C Photography 2022

I am not sure that anyone ever plans to become a coroner, as so little is known or heard about them.

The coroners’ role is unique and involves putting jigsaw pieces together to understand the circumstances in which a person has died.

I am a state school-educated ethnic female. I was never destined for such high office.

I was never mentored on how to get through interviews or pass exams and consider that my journey has been slower than others as I simply didn’t ‘get it’. However, I believe this is a skill that can be taught.

My background

After a business studies degree, I converted to law via the Common Professional Examination (CPE) route.

I went into practice as a general civil litigator, family and conveyancing solicitor in 1991. By 1994, I was a managing partner in a London law firm where I set up and ran a litigation department.

I was appointed to the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) in 2006, where I sat as chair for 14 years.

I took my higher rights of audience in 2009 and secured a contract to practice criminal law as a prosecutor for a government agency.

After a colleague told me they thought I’d make a good coroner, I decided to explore the idea by observing a number of different types of hearing in coroners’ courts.

I recognised that I could use my prosecution skills in analysis of evidence, and my tribunal skills in ‘judgecraft’ and managing complex and long cases.

I was appointed to my first assistant coroner post in London in 2011. This is equivalent to a fee-paid judge position within HM Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS).

My role as a coroner

The coroners’ role is primarily to investigate death. Coroners are judges who take the lead in investigating, preparing cases, selecting witnesses and leading a team of coroner’s officers through to inquest.

The inquest process is inquisitorial rather than adversarial.

A unique feature of the role is that there is no finding of blame against any individual.

Those appearing before the court are not on trial. Rather, witnesses assist the coroner and the bereaved family to understand how the death occurred, with a view to learning lessons and preventing future deaths.

The jigsaw element fits well with my professional curiosity. In 2013, I completed a diploma in forensic medical science to further develop my knowledge in coronial investigation.

A unique place in the community – and the justice system

Recently embraced by the wider judiciary, coroners are unique in that we sit outside HMCTS and are resourced by local authorities. This arrangement stems from a long history dating back to the reign of Richard I in 1194.

We are in an odd position as members of the wider judiciary sitting independently and working closely with the community.

For instance, I am currently supporting my appointing local authority in implementing the Race Equality Plan as a champion for equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI).

We build relationships, provide training and guidance, and contribute to policy development in death management for key stakeholders, who include:

  • the local authority
  • the police
  • GPs
  • the ambulance service
  • the mortuaries
  • hospitals
  • funeral directors
  • prisons
  • Health and Safety Executive, and
  • various other investigative agencies

As well as our skills in office and time management – and achieving value for money – I believe the key strengths solicitors may bring to the role are:

  • client care and accountability
  • case preparation, analysis, management of cases and relationships
  • policy making
  • management of and wellbeing of staff

How to become a coroner

The application process is managed by the local authority for the area and usually consists of:

  • an application form describing your experience against the judicial competency framework
  • an interview, which can vary from area to area

For coroners, the selection process is overseen by the chief coroner. For assistant coroner positions, the interview panel includes the senior/area coroner alongside a local authority representative.

The panel makes a recommendation to the chief coroner, which is approved by the lord chancellor on behalf of Her Majesty, the Queen.

Gaining the right experience

There is no qualifying test in the coroner application process. Whilst it is necessary to demonstrate good knowledge in coronial law at interview, candidates can demonstrate their skills and wider experience earlier in the process than other judicial roles.

There are far fewer coroners than other types of judges and, as such, it is probably more difficult to secure a role if you are not a solicitor practising within the coroners’ jurisdiction.

The key to making a smooth transition from practising solicitor to coroner is to either:

  • have practiced in a medical field of law and have represented families and interested persons appearing before the coroners’ court, or
  • have quasi-judicial or judicial experience sitting as a fee-paid judge in another jurisdiction

Advice for solicitors

Before you apply, observe as many coroner’s court hearings as possible. The community nature of the role tends to mean that coroners take different approaches.

After you have observed, you might want to consider contacting your local coroner to seek work shadowing.

Solicitors come into contact with judges far less often than barristers. It’s therefore essential to get the right support.

If you aspire to the bench, I’d encourage you to undertake advocacy work in the coroners’ court and forge relationships with other advocates and coroners’ teams.

Solicitors must demonstrate through real-life examples that you meet the basic competencies for judicial office. You’ll need to build up a bank of examples over time for your application form.

You should also get practice answering interview questions.

Familiarise yourself with the relevant legislation, rules, regulations, guidance and key cases.

All the resources are to be found on the chief coroner’s website.

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