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What is an inquest?
An inquest is a legal fact-finding inquiry into the cause and circumstances of a death.
It is a public hearing which can be held with or without a jury.
A Coroner considers oral and written evidence as part of the inquest process.
What is a Coroner?
A Coroner is an independent judicial officer who is appointed by the local authority.
A Coroner could be either a doctor, or a lawyer, who is given responsibility for investigating the cause of deaths.
Are all deaths reported to a Coroner?
No. In most cases, deaths are reported to the deceased’s GP who issues a medical certificate stating the cause of death.
The issuing of a certificate in this way very often follows a period of illness which led to the death.
What happens when a death is reported to a Coroner?
The Coroner will request that a pathologist carry out a postmortem, to establish the cause of death.
If the cause of death cannot be found, or the death may have been violent or unnatural, then an inquest will be held.
An inquest is also held whenever a person dies in custody.
What legislation covers inquests?
A Coroner’s duty to hold an inquest is covered by Section 6 of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009.
What time limits are there relating to inquests?
Rule 8 of the Coroners (Inquest) Rules 2013 states that Coroners should complete an inquest within 6 months of the date on which the Coroner is made aware of the death – or, alternatively, as soon as is reasonably practicable.
Why is an inquest opened?
An inquest will open for the following reasons:-
- To record a death;
- To ensure the deceased is identified; and
- For the body to be released for burial or cremation.
What is a pre-inquest hearing?
For more complex cases, the Coroner could hold a pre-inquest hearing.
At this hearing, the following will be considered:-
- Scope of the inquest;
- Possible timeframes; and
- Directions which need to be set.
Pre-inquest hearings are normally held in public. Exceptions to this are when it is in the interests of justice or national security to close them to the public – Rule 11(5) of the Coroners (Inquests) Rules 2013.
‘Properly interested parties’ and/or legal representatives are invited to such hearings by the Coroner so they can make representations, where appropriate.
What happens if there is a possibility of criminal proceedings taking place?
In these circumstances, an inquest would generally remain adjourned.
A Coroner could restrict evidence heard in an inquest (where there is no suspicion of a criminal offence having resulted in the cause of death) if they believe it could influence any future criminal proceedings.
Following a criminal trial, a Coroner has the authority to resume an inquest. However, where an inquest does resume, its outcome regarding the cause of death must not be at odds with the outcome of the criminal proceedings.
Is a Coroner obliged to hold an inquest ‘in the public interest’?
No. A Coroner does not have to hold an inquest for this reason alone.
An inquest is held if the circumstances of the death are in line with the offences listed in paragraph 1(6) of Schedule 1 of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009, as follows:-
- murder, manslaughter, corporate manslaughter or infanticide;
- an offence under any of the following provisions of the Road Traffic Act 1988 (c.52) –-
- section 1 (causing death by dangerous driving);
- section 2B (causing death by careless, or inconsiderate, driving);
- section 3ZB (causing death by driving: unlicensed, disqualified or uninsured drivers);
- section 3A (causing death by careless driving when under the influence of drink or drugs);
- an offence under section 2(1) of the Suicide Act 1961 (c.60) (encouraging or assisting suicide);
- an offence under section 5 of the Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Act 2004 (c.28) (causing or allowing the death of a child or vulnerable adult);
(The above are referred to as ‘homicide offences’ in the Act.)
What conclusions could result from an inquest?
A Coroner could draw many different conclusions, including the following. This is not an exhaustive list but it covers the most commonly used:-
- natural causes (including fatal medical conditions);
- accident or misadventure;
- industrial disease;
- dependence on drugs/non-dependent abuse of drugs;
- attempted/self-induced abortion;
- disasters subject to public inquiry;
- lawful killing (such as deaths caused during acts of war, or self-defence);
- unlawful killing;
- open verdict (where there is insufficient evidence for any other verdict).