What is the Purpose of an Inquest?

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27 October, 2021

Ella Dudley

When the cause of death is unknown, the process to establish this is not always a straightforward one. In these circumstances, where the cause of death is unknown, an inquest can be conducted to ascertain the cause of death. In this article we explore the purpose of an inquest and how the evidence might assist in proving a fatal case on behalf of claimants.

What is an Inquest?

An inquest is a formal investigation conduced by a coroner (a government or judicial official, or in some cases a jury) to establish how an individual has died. They are only conducted in certain circumstances. For example:

  • where the death was sudden, and the cause of death is unknown;
  • where an individual has suffered an unnatural and/or violent death;
  • there are also certain places and circumstances in which there is a legal requirement to hold an inquest, such as when an individual is detained in prison custody, or whilst an individual is sectioned under the Mental Health Act.

Crucially, an inquest is not designed to apportion blame and there cannot be cross examination of witnesses in the same way that there can be at a civil or criminal trial. Despite the limitations, the evidence and findings presented at an inquest can prove helpful in establishing a legal case. The evidence has proven useful in fatal clinical negligence, road traffic accident, employers', and public liability cases that we have run. It might be helpful to include the outcome in the pleading put before court. Legal representation is not always necessary.

The Inquest Process

Usually, the coroner will arrange for a post-mortem (otherwise known as autopsy), for an examination of the body. Upon receipt of the details from the examination, the pathologist will prepare a report of their findings in relation to the cause of death.

If the post-mortem establishes that the death was due to natural causes, there will be no need for an inquest. However, if the cause of death is unnatural or other issues concerning the death are unknown, the inquest will be required.

The coroner inquest may be put on hold if there are criminal charges that are being considered or if they have already been made. After the criminal charges have been dealt with, the coroner may resume the inquest if there is a reason to continue.

Legal Process: Pre-inquest Review Hearing

This is a hearing before the final inquest hearing. The hearing takes place before a coroner and the purpose is to establish what arrangements are to be made to prepare for the inquest hearing. No evidence is given or discussed at this hearing; its purpose is solely to make arrangements for the inquest hearing itself.

Legal Process: The Inquest Hearing

The coroner will call witnesses to give evidence in the hearing. They can ask the witness questions. If the hearing is being carried out and heard in front of a jury, then the jury will also be entitled to ask the witnesses any questions in relation to their evidence.

Once the coroner has summarised the evidence that has been put in front of them, the coroner will provide the court with their conclusion. If there is a jury, then it will be for the jury to decide the conclusion at the end of the inquest in relation to the cause of death. The coroner can guide the jury and provide them with what conclusions they might reach because of the evidence that has been provided to them.

Why Would a Jury be Involved?

  • If the death is due to murder, manslaughter, or infanticide.
  • When the death has taken place in prison.
  • When the death was caused by an accident, poisoning or a disease requiring notification to a government department.
  • A jury may also be involved if there were circumstances which would put members of the public in danger.
  • The coroner may also require a jury at their own discretion where they feel that it is necessary.

Who else can be Involved in the Inquest?

An 'interested person'. This can be an individual who has the right to actively participate in the inquest proceedings, for example, due to their relationship to the deceased, or if they were involved in the circumstances of the death. Whether that individual can be involved as an 'interested person' may also be at the coroner's discretion and whether they think that person has a sufficient interest.

An 'interested person' is defined under s.47 (2) The Coroners and Justice Act (CJA) 2009 and provides a list of individuals who may be an interested person.

If you are deemed an 'interested person' in line with the statute law set out above, there are significant rights that are given to allow the full cooperation and assistance with the coroners inquiry, such as:

  • To be notified by the coroner about key aspects of post-mortem;
  • To be provided with copies of relevant documents held by the coroner;
  • To see written evidence and to object to it being used as evidence at the inquest hearing;
  • To question witnesses at the inquest hearing.

What are the Potential Findings?

There are various findings that can be made at an in inquest. However, the inquest does not determine whether an individual is found guilty or innocent. There is no outcome or finding of any criminal or civil liability. A verdict is given in relation to the identity of the deceased, and how when or where the death occurred. The possible outcomes include:

  • Accidental death
  • Misadventure
  • Suicide
  • Natural causes
  • Unlawful killing
  • Open verdict (which means that the evidence doesn't fully explain or conclude the cause and circumstances of death).

All depositions, post-mortem reports and verdict records are preserved by the coroner and made available to the public. As inquests are public enquiries, members of the public can obtain a copy of the post-mortem report and any depositions taken at the inquest, including a copy of the verdict. These official reports are only available after the inquest has concluded. There is a small fee for these documents. Inquest papers are not available before the inquest has been held.

For more information contact Leonie Millard in our Personal Injury department via email or phone on 01254 770517. Alternatively send any question through to Forbes Solicitors via our online Contact Form.

Learn more about our Personal Injury department here

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