May 20, 2016

Inquests: what you need to know about post-mortem examinations

After a loved one dies, a hospital or coroner may consider that a post mortem may need to take place. This blog considers the role of the post-mortem in the context of a coroner’s inquiry.

What is a post mortem examination?

A post mortem, also known as an autopsy, is a process where a body is examined in order to ascertain the cause of death.

A post mortem is performed by a pathologist. They are usually performed in the hospital where the person died or were taken immediately after their death. Alternatively, it will take place at the public mortuary linked to the Coroner’s Court for the geographical area.

Post mortems are not performed in the majority of deaths and are generally only conducted in specific circumstances, such as where a cause of death is unknown or where the cause of death is suspected to be unnatural. The pathologist will be appointed by the coroner where they feel it is appropriate for a post mortem to be performed.

The process involves removal of internal organs for examination and samples may also be taken for testing. A post-mortem can leave marks on the deceased which can be distressing for family members.

It is now possible, depending on the specific circumstances and your geographical location, for a post mortem to be conducted using a CT scanner, which means that the body is not physically damaged in the process. However, this is a relatively new method of undertaking post mortems and it is not available or appropriate in all cases. If this is something that you feel strongly about then you should raise this with the coroner at the earliest opportunity. Whilst an individual does not have the right to object to a post mortem that has been ordered by the coroner you should certainly make it clear at the earliest opportunity if you do not wish for one to take place so your views can be taken into consideration.

When does a post mortem take place?

A post mortem is carried out as soon as possible after the death and is usually within one or two days.

There are occasions when this can be much longer, for example where the police are investigating a crime linked to the death or where there is a dispute as to whether a post mortem should be performed at all, but thankfully that delay is fairly rare.

Technically, the relatives of the deceased have the right to be represented at the post mortem by a medical practitioner or another representative. However, in practice, we find that most families are not aware of this right until it is too late. Where a family is aware of their right to representation and invokes it, they may be held responsible for the costs of the examination. However, this can sometimes be met by public funding and a specialist inquest lawyer will be able to advise you about this.

Who else may be present at the post mortem?

By law, the following people are entitled to be present at the post mortem examination:

  • A relative of the deceased or their medically qualified representative or a lawyer;
  • A pathologist on behalf of the family;
  • The GP of the deceased;
  • Representative from the hospital where the person died;
  • Where the death was caused by an accident or a disease in certain circumstances, then a representative of the Health and Safety Executive can attend;
  • Any Government department that wishes to attend;
  • The Chief Officer of Police;
  • Any other person who is invited by the coroner.

Post mortem report

The pathologist will provide a post mortem report setting out their conclusions as to the cause of the deceased’s death, and this will be made available to the coroner for the purpose of their inquiry to establish who the deceased was and where, when and how they came about their death.

Whilst there is no right to see the report before the inquest takes place most coroners are content to release the report and to make it available to the relatives of the deceased at a much earlier time.

Where the circumstances of the death are controversial it can take several weeks, sometimes even longer, for the post mortem report to be completed. This may occur where there is a dispute as to the background circumstances of the death or where additional test results are awaited.

Post mortem reports can make for very difficult reading for the family and friends of the deceased. Most people struggle with the very detailed, clinical descriptions given in the report and the medical terminology can be difficult for most lay people to understand. A solicitor will be able to explain the contents of the report and to advise you on the implications for the wider inquest process.

In some circumstances the family of the deceased may wish for a second post mortem examination to take place. This will usually be where the family are not content with the information they have received about the cause of death and where there is reason to be concerned about the circumstances of the death.

As a post mortem is normally performed very quickly after the death, any decisions about a post mortem have to be made at a time when the family and friends of the deceased are overcome with grief. Specialist legal representation should be sought to make you aware of the steps you may wish to take and to guide you through the process of the post mortem and the subsequent inquest. If you would like any further advice then please feel free to contact me.

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