Investigation of Unnatural Death


Death can occur naturally, unnaturally or as the result of a combination of causes originating from oneself or another. While some cases consist of overt evidence that the death occurred naturally, others require an expert to determine the precise cause of death or combination of causes.

A death by natural causes is a death that is primarily caused by a disease or illness not directly influenced by external forces. All deaths that can’t be described as death by natural causes are categorized as unnatural deaths. This includes accidents, homicide, suicide, violent death, falls, poisoning or overdoses (intentional and unintentional) and drowning. When there is death in unnatural circumstances then there is a need of police intervention.

A complete systematic investigation of unnatural death helps the court hugely to give an acceptable judgment. Legal officers like officer-in-charge of a police station, magistrates, witnesses of death circumstances and the forensic pathologists are basically involved in such investigation.

There are several systems of investigation of unnatural death, viz, police inquest, magistrate inquest, coroner inquest, medical examiner inquest etc.


Section 174 of Code of Criminal Procedure contains the provision of law in the criminal jurisprudence that manages the procedure that the police and the judge need to follow in instances of suicides or other such situations resulting in unnatural deaths and the investigation and inquiry into the unnatural deaths.

What is Inquest and Why is it Referred to in section 174, CrPC?

Formal or official investigation of somebody’s death which is unnatural, sudden, suspicious or unexplained by an authorized officer is known as inquest. It is a fact finding inquiry to determine the apparent cause of death and the circumstances which lead to the death of a person. Its purposes are to find out where, when and how a person came to be dead and sometimes to find out his identification. In other words, the cause of death, mode and manner of death, time of death and other circumstances of death need to be found out to complete an inquest.

There are several systems of investigation of unnatural death, viz. police inquest, magistrate inquest, coroner inquest, medical examiner inquest etc.

Police Inquest

On receiving information regarding an unnatural death FIR (first information report) form is duly filled up and signed by the informant and the police officer of the police station and it is entered in criminal register (CR) marked with a case number. As per S-174 of the code of criminal procedures,3,4 1898, Modified in 1995, the police officer of a police station or some other empowered police officer conducts an Inquest.

On receiving the information that a person has committed suicide, has been killed by another or by an animal or by machinery or by accident or has died under circumstances raising a reasonable suspicion that some other person has committed an offence, he shall immediately give information thereof to the concerned magistrate and shall proceed to the place where the body of such deceased person is and there, in the presence of two or more respectable inhabitants of the neighborhood, shall make an investigation and draw up a report of the apparent cause of death, describing such wounds, fractures, bruises and other marks of injury as may be found on the body and stating in what manner or by what weapon or instrument (if any) such marks appear to have been inflicted.

As per S-175, a police officer investigating such unnatural death can summon in writing two or more persons acquainted with the facts of the case, and every person, so summoned shall answer truly all questions.

Medical Examiner Inquest

When the body is brought to his morgue, the medical examiner himself performs an external physical examination and some laboratory tests. Blood from subclavian vessels and vitreous from the eyes are taken if no autopsy is performed. If autopsy is performed, blood, vitreous, urine and bile are obtained for toxicological examination.

Coroner Inquest

If the general practitioner (GP) or doctor is unsure what caused the death, they can’t certify the death and will report it to the coroner. The coroner can then ask for a post mortem to be done, which can help them understand how the person died.

If the post mortem finds that the death was from natural causes, the coroner might decide that an inquiry is not needed. They’ll then issue a coroner’s finding that states when, where and how the person died. This finding will be given to the person’s immediate family.

Magistrate Inquest

As per S-176, (1) when any person dies while in the custody of the police, the nearest authorized executive magistrate will held inquiry into the cause of death either instead of or in addition to the investigation held by the police officer. This is called magistrate inquest.

Section 174, CrPC in relation with section 304B & 498A, IPC

In the year 1983, there was a large number of cases reported of deaths caused because of the demand for dowry. Woman who could pay the demand after marriage were either brutally treated or they were murdered. In order to control the inflammatory situation of dowry death, the Parliament inserted Section 304-B in the Indian Penal code by the Dowry Prohibition (Amendment) Act, 1986. Section 304-B of IPC says that if the death of a woman is caused by such bodily injury or otherwise than under normal circumstances or if she is subjected to cruelty or harassment for demand of dowry and if such death or act of cruelty is caused within seven years of marriage, then the husband or his relative will be deemed to have caused her death.

The parliamentarians also inserted Section 498-A in the Indian Penal Code by the Criminal Law Amendment Act, 1983 (Act 46 of 1983), which penalizes cruelty by husband or his relative on a woman for any unlawful demand for any property or valuable security or is on account of failure by her or any person related to her to meet such demand, which forces her to commit suicide or cause grave injury or danger to her life.

The criminal amendment act of 1983 also inserted cl. 3 in the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973 to curb the increasing incidents of dowry deaths. This sub-section says that if the death of a woman is caused within seven years of marriage and if there is any reasonable suspicion over the death of the woman that an offence has been committed under Section 304-B and 498-A of the IPC in this regard, the police officer should subject to such rules as the State Government may prescribe in this behalf, send the body for post-mortem examination by the nearest civil surgeon, over the request made by any relative of the deceased woman.


In a nutshell, Section 174 lays down the procedure that a police officer must follow on the unnatural death of a person. When an unidentified dead body is found, the police officer shall inform such matter to the magistrate who shall investigate into the cause of death of the person and upon such investigation, prepare an inquest report that shall include the details that the magistrate has found during the investigation. The section also lays down the requirements that the magistrate must fulfill for preparing an inquest report that shall specify the cause of death of the person. The section does not lay down the procedure for tracing of the accused. The section also provides for special performance on the part of a police officer in case of dowry death, i.e., death of woman within seven years of marriage for the demand of dowry. Thus, this section is confined to unnatural deaths and dowry deaths.

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