Being told that there needs to be an inquest into the death of your loved one is a distressing and confusing time. You will likely have lots of questions and also want to know what to expect from the inquest process.
Inquests are usually held when a death certificate cannot be issued until an investigation has been carried out, to establish the facts needed for the certificate to be complete. The person who completes the investigation is called a Coroner.
An inquest will be held if there is reason to suspect that the cause of death is:
- Violent or unnatural, or
- Occurred whilst the person was in custody, such as in prison, police cell or psychiatric hospital
The Coroner will need to establish throughout their investigations who the person was, when they died, where they were and how they died.
During an inquest, there are parties called Properly Invested Persons or PIPs who take an active role in the investigation. They are often family members of the person who died, representatives of the establishment where the person died or those who were directly involved in the care provided to the person who died. It is normal practice for the PIPs to be legally represented.
Generally inquests are not heard in front of a jury, but there are instances where this is mandatory. Such as if:
- The death occurred whilst the person was in the custody of the state,
- The death was violent, unnatural or unknown,
- The death resulted from the act of a police officer or member of a service police force, or
- The death was caused by an accident, poisoning or disease
Sometimes a pre-inquest review may need to be held, which is when the Coroner holds a hearing before the inquest with attendance from all the PIPs. The purpose is to determine any issues before the inquest which will have an impact on the hearing being held.
Typically, an inquest is held at a Coroner’s Court, which tends to look like an ordinary courtroom inside. The Coroner will be sat at the front with benches facing him or her where the legal representatives will be sat. If a jury is involved, they will usually be sat at one side with a clear view of the witness box. Family members of the person who died will normally sit behind the legal representative benches.
During the inquest, the Coroner and Jury if in attendance, will hear evidence from live representatives who attend at the court and any witness statements from those witnesses who are not present. When a live witness gives evidence, the Coroner will begin by asking them questions. Then legal representatives for the PIPs are permitted to answer relevant questions to aid the Coroner’s inquiry. If a jury is present, they are also permitted to ask questions of the witness.
Once the Coroner has heard from all the witnesses, they are then able to call upon witnesses to address any concerns that may have arisen, presenting cause for concern. For example, to ascertain if there is a risk of any further deaths occurring at the same establishment or under a similar circumstance.
A conclusion must be met at the end of an inquest. If a Jury is present, the Coroner will hear from the legal representatives as to what conclusions should be left for the Jury to consider. If there is no Jury, the PIPs will address the Coroner on what conclusion would be appropriate for the Coroner to reach in their investigation.
Possible conclusions could be one of the following:
- Accident or misadventure
- Alcohol or drug-related
- Industrial disease
- Lawful or unlawful killing
- Natural causes
- Open conclusion
- Road traffic collision
It is also possible for the Coroner or Jury to return a narrative conclusion, whereby a paragraph is produced that factually describes the circumstances of the death.
The inquest ends with the Coroner or Jury completing a Record of Inquest and reading out their conclusions.