What is an inquest, and what happens during an inquest hearing?
An inquest is a formal investigation conducted by a coroner in order to determine how someone died. Inquests are held only in certain circumstances, such as where a death was sudden and the cause is unknown, where someone has died an unnatural or violent death, or where someone has died in a place or circumstance where there is legal requirement to hold an inquest, for example in prison custody or whilst sectioned under the Mental Health Act.
The purpose of an inquest is limited to establishing four key things: the identity of the deceased as well as where, when and how they died.
What happens during an inquest following an unexpected death?
Save for the most straightforward inquests, the coroner’s investigation can take place over many months depending on the particular circumstances of the case and the complexities involved.
1 – The post mortem
At the outset of the investigation the coroner will usually arrange for a post mortem, sometimes known as an ‘autopsy’, to be performed. Following the examination, the pathologist prepares a report of their findings as to the cause of death.
2 – Pre-inquest review hearings
There may be a pre-inquest review (PIR) hearing in advance of the final inquest hearing. This is a hearing before the coroner where arrangements are made to prepare for the inquest hearing itself.
No evidence is heard at a PIR. Instead, it focuses on the practical steps that need to be taken in preparation for an inquest. This can include, for example, disclosure of documents, production of witness statements, deciding which witnesses would need to be called to give evidence, and trying to agree the likely date and length of the inquest hearing. In some inquests there could be several PIR hearings before the inquest itself takes place in order to ensure everything is in place for the final hearing.
3 – The inquest hearing
The inquest hearing itself often represents the culmination of many months of work in collating relevant documents, statements and reports.
During the inquest hearing the coroner will call witnesses to give evidence. The coroner, and anyone else deemed to have a proper interest in the proceedings (known as an ‘interested person’), will then have the opportunity to ask questions of the witness. If the inquest is being heard with a jury, then the jurors will also be allowed an opportunity to ask further questions of each witness.
Sometimes a witness will not be called to attend the inquest in person but, instead, their statement will be read out in the hearing so that it still forms part of the evidence. This usually happens where their evidence is not controversial but where it is still deemed relevant to the coroner’s investigation.
Once all of the witnesses have been called, the coroner sums up the evidence heard. The coroner will give his/her conclusion (previously known as the ‘verdict’) and will also complete the Record of Inquest form to note the findings that were reached.
If there is a jury then it is the jury who will determine the conclusion at the end of the inquest. The coroner will give the jury guidance as to which conclusions they may reach (based on the evidence that has been heard) and will explain their obligations as a jury, before asking them to retire and consider their conclusion.
What are the rights of a bereaved person?
Broadly speaking, an ‘interested person’ is someone who has the right to actively participate in the inquest proceedings. This can be because of their relationship to the deceased, involvement in the circumstances of the death, or at the discretion of the coroner.
An ‘interested person’ is defined in the Coroners and Justice Act (CJA) 2009. Generally, there is unlikely to be any issue in the immediate family securing direct involvement in the inquest hearing, though problems can arise in certain situations. For example, where a family is divided and there is acrimony; where the deceased has no known family; or where the family have no interest in the inquest or are obstructive to it taking place.
These are significant rights conferred on interested persons during an inquest, with a view to them being able to participate fully in the process and to assist the coroner’s inquiry.
The key rights of the interested persons during an inquest include:
- to be notified by the coroner about key aspects of post mortem or toxicology analysis;
- to be provided with copies of relevant documents held by the coroner including that which the coroner considers relevant to the inquest;
- to see written evidence and to object to it being used as evidence at the inquest hearing;
- to question witnesses at the inquest hearing.
How can you fund an inquest?
If you require specialist legal representation in an inquest there are a number of options available to you in terms of funding. In some circumstances legal representation can be provided at no cost to the you, for example by way of Legal Aid public funding, or if you have legal expenses insurance in place.
Alternatively, representation can be funded privately, or with a ‘no win, no fee’ agreement. We will carefully consider all options available in your case and we will advise you on the best options for your particular circumstances. You can find out more about our funding options here.