Norfolk coroner steps down after two decades of putting bereaved families first

Norfolk coroner, William Armstrong, at the Coroner's Court. Picture: Denise Bradley

Norfolk coroner, William Armstrong, at the Coroner's Court. Picture: Denise Bradley - Credit: Copyright: Archant 2012

Having presided over the inquests into the double shotgun deaths of a couple from Cromer and a baby from Thetford who was failed by the ambulance service, it has been no ordinary week for William Armstrong.

But for Mr Armstrong, who has been Norfolk's coroner for about 19 years, the hearings into the deaths of North Norfolk District Council leader Keith Johnson and his wife Andrea and three-month-old Bella Hellings, were among the last he will ever hold.

For yesterday Mr Armstrong officially retired from the role he has occupied full-time for almost two decades, although he had first become involved in conducting inquests as long ago as 1986. The 67-year-old father of two who will continue to sit as a mental health tribunal judge and as a legal assessor to the Medical Practitioners Tribunal Service, said: 'It was a bittersweet day. I was sad to say goodbye.

'I shall miss the job enormously because I've enjoyed it and I shall look back with many happy memories.

'It has been a privilege. It's been challenging and demanding, but it's also very rewarding.'

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Mr Armstrong, who will now take up a new role as the chairman of Healthwatch Norfolk, an organisation designed to ensure that Norfolk's health and social care meet the county's needs and priorities, was given a farewell reception at the Great Hospital in Norwich earlier this month. The event was attended by his wife Monica, daughters Amy and Lucy and the great and the good of the city.

But while those in attendance had come to remember Mr Armstrong, it was those very people that Mr Armstrong wanted to remember and thank for their support over the years.

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He said: 'I'm very grateful to so many people who have supported me in my role and who, in particular, have supported me in promoting my vision of what the coroner's service should be about and that is about looking after the bereaved and being sensitive and sympathetic.'

While Mr Armstrong himself recognises that the function of the coroner is to 'make sure deaths are recorded rigorously, fairly and comprehensively so there is as clear an understanding as there can be as to how that person died' he is also adamant that in so doing, the most important consideration is the victim and their family.

It is this ethos which has been at the forefront of Mr Armstrong's thinking during his time in the role and is one of the reasons why Norfolk has been at the forefront of a revolution as far as inquests are concerned.

During his tenure, a number of pioneering initiatives have been instigated in the county, including establishing an inquest support service, providing a new purpose-designed court and appointing the country's first coroner's chaplain.

All these measures have been introduced with the aim of putting bereaved families first.

Mr Armstrong said: 'An important part is trying to concentrate on the needs of the bereaved and trying to make sure that people are helped and not hindered in their grieving process.

'It's about making sure we deal with people in a sympathetic, sensitive and compassionate way, concentrating on their needs and treating each death in a unique way. Each death is unique as every life is unique and people grieve in their own way.

'The coroner's court in Norwich, which is two-years-old, has been specifically designed to make sure that grieving relatives are at the forefront of the process sitting directly in front of me.

'Another important part is having a discussion with relatives before the inquest takes place, which helps me learn something about the person who has died.

'This means I can talk not only about how they died, but how they lived, which I think is very important.'

The interaction with families of the bereaved is one of the things about the role Mr Armstrong says he will 'miss most'.

He said: 'These conversations can sometimes be very traumatic, but they can also be quite uplifting and enriching as well.' Mr Armstrong, a patron of Nelson's Journey, a charity which supports children affected by bereavement and a president of bereavement charity Cruse, said during his time as coroner he had also sought to help and protect families and communities by promoting public safety and, where possible, learning lessons, from deaths.

He said: 'It's fundamentally a judicial process, but an additional role of the coroner is to try and ensure, in appropriate circumstances, that lessons are learned from tragic occurrences.

'I've made reports to particular authorities highlighting circumstances which have led to catastrophes in order to reduce the likelihood of it happening again.

'It's good for the families to know that some lessons have been learned and some action may have been taken to reduce the likelihood of further fatalities and it's sometimes in the public interest to mark deaths that have occurred.'

Mr Armstrong said the position had changed during his time, and that he had tried to broaden the remit of the coroner to try to take a more active role in the community in order to try and ensure he was not seen as an 'aloof' figure.

Jacqueline Lake will take on the role of senior coroner for Norfolk on October 1 and Mr Armstrong, who 'wishes her every success' said he hopes she enjoys the same support he has received.

But while Mr Armstrong is stepping down as coroner, he said that he hopes to continue to play an 'active part in the life of Norfolk' in a variety of roles, which also include Lay Canon of Norwich Cathedral, an appointment made in recognition of his 'exceptional service' to the city.

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