What exactly is an inquest?

An inquest looks at the way in which a person died; examining the direct circumstances surrounding the death but does not decide guilt in the same way as a criminal trial or public inquiry.

The scope of an inquest is outlined in the Coroners and Justice Act 2009 and is usually confined to examining how, when and where the death occurred. This differs if Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights is engaged (the Right to Life).

An Article 2 inquest will take place if an ‘agent of the state’ (such as the Police or Army) has been implicated in the person’s death. This type of inquest has a broader approach, looking more widely at the circumstances involved (such as inquests into deaths in Police or Prison custody.)

What are the available verdicts at an inquest?

At the conclusion of the inquest, the coroner will formally record the conclusion as to the cause of death. A range of short form outcomes are available, including unlawful killing, misadventure, suicide, accident, an open verdict if the evidence proves inconclusive, or a narrative conclusion setting out factors which contributed to the death.

Can I get Legal Aid for an inquest?

There is no automatic right to Legal Aid, but an application for ‘exceptional funding’ can be made. Inquests which engage Article 2 (as above) will usually result in Legal Aid being granted.

How do I go about obtaining medical records belonging to a deceased person?

You’re solicitor on your behalf will make formal requests to hospitals, care homes, private companies or prisons. They will also liaise with coroner’s office for disclosure of records.

When does the coroner investigate the circumstances of a death?

If there is reasonable suspicion that a person died in certain circumstances, it is the coroner’s duty to investigate. Circumstances include:

  • Dying a violent or unnatural death
  • The cause of death is unknown
  • Deceased died whilst in custody or another state detention.

Who is involved in a Coroner’s investigation?

If you fall within the definition of an interested person, you are entitled to participate:

  • Family: a spouse, civil partner, partner, parent, child, brother, sister, grandparent, grandchild, child of a brother or sister, stepparents, half-siblings
  • Personal representative of the deceased
  • A person who may by any act or omission have caused or contributed to the death of the deceased, or whose employee or agent may have done so

The criteria for an interested person are wide, meaning that those close to the deceased have participation into the investigation.
When can a coroner hold an inquest into a death as part of the investigation?
If a post mortem examination or any other preliminary investigation establishes there is no reason to suspect that any circumstances apply from the Justice Act and a Coroner can reach a conclusion of how the deceased died without further enquiry, the investigation will be discontinued an therefore no inquest held. If a coroner is unable to establish circumstances of a death and suspects that the death was violent or unnatural, an inquest will be held.

Will a jury be called at an inquest?

A Senior Coroner is able to empanel a jury. Only in specific circumstances will this happen:

  • If death occurred in custody and there is reason to suspect the death was “violent” or “unnatural” or the cause of the death is unknown.
  • If death is caused by a “notifiable accident, poisoning or disease” and needs reported to the Health and Safety Executive. Such accidents include deaths caused by accidents in the workplace or death in a healthcare setting where a patient has committed suicide or killed by another patient.
  • If death occurred in circumstances which are prejudicial to the health and safety of the public.

How do solicitors help?

We represent you during the inquest proceedings, obtaining any relevant records or documents belonging to the deceased person, making legal submissions to the coroner, and instructing a barrister to represent clients at court hearings. Inquests are public hearings and depending on the case can sometimes attract media interest. We can assist you with managing such press interest in a sensitive manner.

What is the process, what happens at an inquest?

An inquest gives those close to the deceased the opportunity to raise direct queries relating to the death of the loved one. Evidence can include any governance systems to be scrutinised, as well as local authorities and health and social care professionals. You will be asked to make a statement, with all relevant documentation disclosed to the coroner.

A Coroner heads up an inquest and will usually sit alone, unless the case involves a death in custody or state detention, and the death was violent or unnatural, or of unknown cause; where the death resulted from an act or omission of a police officer or member of a service police force in the purported execution of their duties; or where the death was caused by an accident, poisoning or disease which must be reported to a government department or inspector, eg certain deaths at work. In these cases the Coroner will sit with a Jury which will return factual conclusions (as seen in the Hillsborough inquests.)  Witnesses can be called to attend and be questioned, but they do not have to answer a question if it could incriminate them.

What is the outcome of a Coroner’s investigation?

At the end of the investigation, the coroner will issue a record of an inquest. In this document, will be determinations relating to the deceased and how they died. This record will include a conclusion of the death, in short form explaining whether the death was caused by neglect or natural causes. It can also include narrative of circumstances leading up to the death.