English law does not require a doctor to confirm death has occurred or view the body of a deceased person. However, English law requires the doctor who attended the deceased during the last illness to issue a certificate detailing the cause of death to the Registrar of Births and Deaths.
The term “attending” is not specified and can be loosely interpreted. It has no time limit of 28 days and “attending” does not mean seeing the patient.
The doctor is required to notify the cause of death as a certificate, on a form prescribed, stating to the best of his or her knowledge and belief, the cause of death. It should be noted that the strict interpretation of the law is that the doctor shall notify the cause of death, not the fact. Thus, a doctor does not certify that death has occurred, only what in his or her opinion was the cause, assuming that death has taken place.
Coronavirus Act Expiry
The Coronavirus Act 2020, which introduced easements to death certification processes and cremation forms, expires at midnight on 24 March 2022. Some changes have been retained on a permanent basis through other measures, and other processes revert to previous practice.
The following provisions are continuing after 24 March 2022:
- The period before death within which a doctor completing a Medical Certificate of Cause of Death (MCCD) must have seen a deceased patient will remain 28 days (prior to the coronavirus pandemic, the limit was 14 days).
- It will still be acceptable for medical practitioners to send MCCDs to registrars electronically.
- The government’s intention is that the form Cremation 5 will not be reintroduced after the Coronavirus Act expires.
The following emergency provisions are changing with the expiry of the Coronavirus Act on 24 March 2022:
- The provision temporarily allowing any medical practitioner to complete the MCCD, introduced as a temporary measure by the Coronavirus Act, will be discontinued.
- Informants will have to register deaths in person, not remotely.
See NHS guidance for more detail.