A Coroner is responsible for investigating the death of a person where there is reasonable cause to suspect that the deceased
- has died a violent or unnatural death; or
- has died a sudden death of which the cause is unknown; or
- has died in prison (or certain other places or circumstances)
The coroner will usually deal with the case in one of three ways:
- He may make some telephone and/or other inquiries to satisfy himself that no inquest or post-mortem examination is necessary.
- If the cause of death is unknown, the coroner may ask a pathologist to carry out a post-mortem examination. If that reveals a natural cause of death and there is no reason to suspect that the death was violent or unnatural, the coroner may decide not to hold an inquest.
- In all other circumstances, the coroner will usually open an inquest. It is usual for the body to be released promptly for burial or cremation even if the inquest cannot be held for some time, but there might be some delay in releasing the body if the death was 'suspicious'.
The purpose of an inquest is to establish who the deceased was and how, when and where they died. It is not intended to apportion blame. There are no accusations and there is no defence or prosecution. The coroner's jurisdiction is inquisitorial rather than adversarial or accusatorial.
Interested persons have the right to attend the inquest and ask questions. An interested person is one who falls into any of the following categories:
- a spouse, civil partner, partner, parent, child, brother, sister, grandparent, grandchild, child of a brother or sister, stepfather, stepmother, half-brother or half-sister of the deceased;
- a personal representative of the deceased;
- a medical examiner exercising functions in relation to the death of the deceased;
- a beneficiary under a policy of insurance issued on the life of the deceased;
- the insurer who issued such a policy;
- a person who may by any act or omission have caused or contributed to the death of the deceased, or whose employee or agent may have done so;
- a representative from a Trade Union to whom the deceased belonged at the time of death (if the death arose in connection with the person's employment or was due to industrial disease);
- a person appointed by, or representative of, an enforcing authority
- in certain circumstances, a chief constable, provost marshal or independent police complaints commission;
- any person appointed as an inspector or a representative of an enforcing authority or a person appointed by a Government Department to attend the inquest; or
- a person appointed by a Government department to attend an inquest into the death or to assist in, or provide evidence for the purposes of, an investigation into the death
- any other person who the coroner thinks has a sufficient interest.
There is no absolute right for an interested person to receive documents, including witness statements, which the Coroner has in his possession. However, the Coroner must supply interested persons with a copy of the post mortem report and any documents or notes put in evidence at the inquest. This obligation does not necessarily mean that the documents will be disclosed before the inquest, but as a matter of good practice the Coroner should be prepared to supply a copy of these documents in advance.
Sometimes lawyers attend on behalf of properly interested persons to ensure that appropriate questions are asked and answered. Questions can be asked of witnesses, but only to elicit the facts about how, when and where the deceased died. Questions which attempt to deal with issues of blame will not be allowed by the Coroner.
The inquest hearing may lead to one of several verdicts:-
- Natural causes;
- Died from industrial disease;
- Died from dependence on drugs / non-dependent abuse of drugs;
- Died from want of attention at birth
- Killed himself whilst the balance of the mind was disturbed;
- Died as a result of an attempted / self-induced abortion;
- Died as a result of an accident / misadventure;
- Was killed lawfully;
- Was killed unlawfully;
- Open verdict.
Most of these are self-explanatory but the open verdict requires a more explanation. An open verdict may be returned where there is insufficient evidence to return any other suggested verdict. In other words it is a verdict of last resort if none of the others apply.
Legal Aid is not generally available for representation at inquests because an inquest is a fact-finding process (but see below). Unlike other proceedings for which Legal Aid might be available, there are no parties in inquests, only properly interested persons. Witnesses are not expected to present legal arguments. The coroner must ensure that the process is fair, impartial and thorough, and he or she should ensure that the relevant questions of properly interested persons are answered.
Legal Aid may be available to cover representation at the inquest in exceptional cases. Applicants must qualify financially and meet strict criteria for representation to be funded. These criteria are that:
- there is a significant wider public interest in the applicant being represented at the inquest; or
- the circumstances of the death appear to be such that funded representation is likely to be necessary to enable the coroner to investigate the case effectively and establish the facts, providing that the applicant was a member of the deceased's immediate family (as required by Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights).
There is no statutory right of appeal. However, the Coroner's decision and/or the Inquisition may be challenged using (a) judicial review, (b) an application to the Divisional Court under Section 13 of the Coroners Act 1988; or (c) an application to the High Court under the Human Rights Act.
We are able assist in the preparation for an Inquest and at the Inquest itself. Many people find the possibility of an Inquest daunting and we can guide you through the process. Some coroners hold pre-inquest hearings to discuss issues of concern with relatives and we can attend these with you or on your behalf. We can examine documents that the coroner discloses, such as medical records, a post mortem report and statements, identify the issues on which you require clarification and ask relevant questions of witnesses at the inquest, including those involved in the deceased's medical care. We can also advise on the kind of questions that family members called as witnesses may be asked.
If you are not satisfied with the inquest, we can advise you whether or not there are any grounds for challenging either the proceedings or the decision.
Please call us on 01252 617119 to find out how we can assist you.