Forensic pathology is probably the most high profile of all the pathological specialties, but is relatively small in terms of number of practitioners.
Forensic pathology is the discipline of pathology concerned with the investigation of deaths where there are medico-legal implications, for example, suspected homicides, death in custody and other complex medico-legal cases.
Much of the day-to-day work of forensic pathology is performing autopsies, for example in a case of stabbing, shooting or head injury, which are common methods of homicide in the United Kingdom. These autopsies are usually carried out under the authority of the coroner in England and Wales, with police present. In England and Wales, forensic pathologists are accredited by the Home Office. In Scotland, which has a rather different medico-legal system requiring two pathologists at an autopsy, they operate under the Procurator Fiscal system.
Aside from performing autopsies, attendance at both Crown court and the coroner’s court are frequent, necessitating explaining medical issues to juries as well as relatives.
Contact with other pathologists is important, for example cardiac pathologists, respiratory pathologists and neuropathologists. The career also gives the opportunity of working with non-medical personnel such as police, barristers and lawyers.
Aside from work for the police, forensic pathologists also undertake opinion work for lawyers or other organisations. This may be on behalf of a defendant on a murder charge, or acting in civil proceedings.
Forensic pathology is mainly not within the health service. There are some university departments remaining in Scotland. However, many practitioners in England and Wales are in independent practice as the health service has become less keen on appointing relatively high profile individuals doing essentially non-NHS work.
It is a specialty that requires good communication skills as well as an ability to work under pressure and a flexible approach to the working day as much of the work is unpredictable.
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Prof Helen Whitwell
Specialty Advisory Committee on Forensic Pathology