For the family and friends of a deceased person, waiting for an inquest to be carried out and the results released can be an extremely difficult and distressing time.
Each year, tens of thousands of inquests are carried out across the UK by Coroners. In 2020, 31,991 inquests were opened, with 239 inquests involving juries. Indeed, every day there is coverage in our local and national media of inquests. It might be that a deceased person has been found, and it is not clear how they died, a person died in suspicious circumstances, or they died in custody, in which case the Coroner needs to establish what led to the death. Coroners carry out an inquest where they consider a person’s death to be unexplained or suspicious to establish what led to the event.
It is important to note, however, that the process of the inquest is not about apportioning any form of blame or responsibility for the death, rather it is concerned with just the facts of how the person died.
Why do Coroners carry out inquests following a death?
By law (under section 6 of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009), Coroners have a legal duty to carry out an inquest in certain circumstances. This duty states;
“A senior coroner who conducts an investigation under this Part into a person’s death must (as part of the investigation) hold an inquest into the death”.
An inquest is a public inquiry in a court by a Coroner where a death was either violent, unnatural, had an unknown cause, or occurred in custody (e.g. in prison). By carrying out an inquest, a Coroner will seek to confirm who died (i.e. if their identity is not known), when, how, and where they died, what led to the death medically, and the circumstances of the death. Inquests are about establishing the facts of the death and hence are not intended to apportion blame.
Who attends an inquest hearing?
Inquests are carried out in a Coroner’s court. This is an open court, hence any family and friends of the deceased can observe the proceedings. Certain individuals referred to as ‘Properly Interested Persons’ (PIPs), including family members of the deceased person, are invited to attend and play an active role in the hearing, in addition to their legal representatives. Others who may attend include witnesses such as those who provided care to the deceased or staff members in the place where the death occurred (e.g. if the person was in prison at the time of their death, a representative of the prison will attend). It is normally not suitable for children or young people to attend an inquest.
In most inquests, there is no Jury in attendance, and the Coroner is able to reach a conclusion on their own. A Jury may be required in certain circumstances, including where a person died:
- Of an unnatural or violent cause
- In the care of the state (e.g. in prison or while sections under the Mental Health Act)
- As a result of a “notifiable accident, poisoning or disease” reported to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), for example, in the workplace.
The Coroner may also request the attendance of a Jury if they feel it is in the public interest or there is sufficient reason for doing so.
What happens during a Coroner’s inquest hearing?
The main inquest hearing is typically conducted within six months of the death or as soon as possible after this, depending on the circumstances. At the hearing, once everyone is seated, the Coroner who presides over the proceedings will invite evidence from witnesses. Sometimes this is given directly by the witness, and on other occasions, this will be read by a representative of the witness. The Coroner, legal representatives, and Jury can ask questions of any witness to clarify the circumstances of the death, but they will never do so in an accusatory manner; rather, just in a way that establishes the facts of what happened.
In some cases, the Coroner may ask for additional witnesses to speak where this is needed to prevent other deaths from occurring in the same or similar circumstances; this is referred to as Regulation 28 evidence.
Having heard all of the evidence presented and asked any questions required, the Coroner then reaches a conclusion on the cause of death. Some of the possible causes of death include death by:
- unlawful killing
- lawful killing (for example, if the death occurred during a war or in self-defence);
- natural causes
- accident or misadventure
- industrial disease
- attempted/self-induced abortion;
- dependence on drugs or other substances
If the Coroner is unable to reach a firm conclusion as to how and why a person died, they may record an open verdict.
At such a difficult and distressing time following the death of a loved one in any of the circumstances outlined above, it is important to understand when and how inquests are conducted. They are ultimately about establishing the facts and answering key questions about how a person came to their death. If you need any legal support before, during, or after an inquest, or to discuss the possible implications, consider speaking to a Coroner and Inquest Solicitor who will be able to guide you through the process in an empathetic and considerate manner. They will also be able to advise taking any further action on your behalf and of immediate family members.
Reeds Solicitors is a leading coroner and inquest, family law, prison law, and mental health law firm in England and Wales. You can reach us through our contact page here.