October 28, 2015

Inquests: Pre-inquest review (PIR) hearings

An inquest is an investigation to seek out and record the facts concerning a death. The purpose of an investigation into a person’s death is to ascertain: who the deceased was; where the deceased came by his or her death; when the deceased came by his or her death; and how the deceased came by his or her death.

Whilst the majority of inquests can be heard in less than a day when dealing with uncomplicated or uncontroversial deaths, some inquests can be much more complex and so require proactive case management in the months leading up to the inquest hearing, to ensure adequate preparation and that the coroner is able to address the key issues surrounding a death.

As part of my series of informative blogs covering the inquest process from start to finish, I thought it would be helpful to revisit the nature and purpose of pre-inquest review hearings.

What is a pre-inquest review hearing?

A pre-inquest review hearing (PIR) is a hearing before the Coroner where the Interested Persons and the coroner seek to properly plan for the final inquest.

The PIR will not address any of the evidence directly, nor will any witnesses or experts be called. Instead, the hearing focuses primarily on the ‘housekeeping’ matters.

Pre-inquest review hearings have a number of notable benefits, including:

  • Allowing for effective case management;
  • Ensuring that disclosure has taken place;
  • Ensuring that the final inquest hearing runs as smoothly as possible and with minimal delay;
  • Providing an opportunity to make the Coroner aware of any issues or themes which may be of concern to interested persons.

Issues for consideration at pre-inquest review hearing

Whilst the specific issues will vary widely between cases, there are a number of issues which may need to be considered:

  • Whether there is a need for any further investigations and enquiries, for example involving the Police, Crown Prosecution Service, Independent Police Complaints Commission, Health & Safety Executive, hospital Trust or the Prisons & Probation Ombudsman.
  • Whether appropriate disclosure has already been made to the Coroner, and then passed on to the interested parties.
  • The Coroner can determine the scope of the inquest, for example whether it will be an ‘ordinary’ inquest or whether Article II of the Human Rights Act will be engaged.
  • Whether all Interested Persons have been identified and agreeing which witnesses ought to be called to give evidence.
  • Whether a jury is required or, if a jury is discretionary, whether one will be called.
  • Whether there is a need for expert evidence.
  • Practical arrangements such as the length of the hearing and the likely date it will take place, as well as the need for particular facilities such as audio-visual/computer equipment, video conferencing, security and whether site visits may be necessary to assist the Court in understanding the evidence.

Increasing popularity of pre-inquest review hearings

The present Chief Coroner for England and Wales, HHJ Mark Lucraft QC, has encouraged the use of PIRs. He acknowledges that they can be a vital tool for managing the coronial investigation in an efficient way, which generally serves to save great expense and delay down the line, which is beneficial to everyone involved.

As well as the obvious benefits of saving time and money, PIRs can also assist with promoting a more effective inquisitorial process. When key issues are addressed early on in the Coroner’s investigation it can help to allay suspicion and allow the parties to focus on the truly relevant issues surrounding a death.

Who can call for a PIR?

The status of a PIR was formalised by virtue of the Coroners (Inquest) Rules 2013 SI No 1616. Rule 6 provides that “a Coroner may at any time during the course of an investigation and before an inquest hearing hold a pre-inquest review hearing.”

Often a Coroner will make arrangements for a PIR without needing to be prompted. However, if this does not happen then an Interested Person can suggest to the Coroner that a PIR takes place.

When does the PIR take place?

The specific timing of the PIR will vary greatly depending on specific circumstances in a case by case basis. Often there will be one relatively early on to determine preliminary issues and to consider what evidence needs to be obtained at an early stage.  However, it may be that one or more additional PIRs are required at a later date.  In a particularly complex inquest, for example where there are a large number of witnesses/experts or a large volume of documentation, then there could be several PIR hearings before the final inquest takes place.

Whilst generally they should be planned ahead, so that the Interested Persons can prepare and make submissions if necessary, the need for a PIR can arise on an urgent basis if there are pressing issues which arise.

In my experience PIRs can be vitally important. By ensuring that appropriate steps are taken early on it minimises the chances of delay and maximises the likelihood of a full and thorough inquest hearing.  For this reason, it is often advisable to have a legal representative to attend on your behalf.  If you would like any further information on pre-inquest review hearings, or anything else relating to an inquest, then please get in touch with me.

If you want to find out more about inquests, take a look at our inquests guides.

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