What is the purpose of an inquest?
An inquest has to occur if somebody dies and the cause of death is unnatural, violent or unknown. An inquest must also be held if the person who has died was in custody or detention at the time of their death. It is the coroner’s job to investigate such deaths and the law requires them to answer four questions:
- who the deceased was,
- how, when and where the deceased came by his or her death.
The coroner must also determine the medical cause of death and registration particulars for the death certificate following registration with the registrar when conducting an inquest.
The coroner is not able to apportion any blame of determine liability, this is not allowed under the law. These are matters for other types of court such as the civil and criminal courts.
What is a post mortem and why are they held?
A post-mortem, also known as an autopsy, is the medical examination of a body after death. It may be by digital scan, invasive examination, forensic examination, or examination of certain samples or specific parts of a body.
A post mortem is likely to be required if the cause of death is not known and this is a decision for the coroner.
What happens during an inquest?
During an inquest the coroner has to consider evidence to answer the above questions, this may involve reading documents, obtaining witness statements and calling witnesses to provide evidence in court at a hearing.
Some inquests are fairly straight forward and can be opened and concluded on the same day. These are known as fast track inquests.
Other investigations may take longer, so the coroner may agree to release a deceased person’s body for burial or cremation whilst other reports are awaited and then consider whether there is a need for an inquest. An example is where a post mortem cannot determine the exact cause of death and other reports such as toxicology are required.
If an inquest is required (because it is suspected the death was unnatural or the cause unknown), then it may be opened and adjourned to obtain further evidence or proceed as a fast track inquest
Interested persons (or parties) are entitled to take part in the inquest and receive copies of the documents and statements being referred to.
A ‘properly interested person’ can be a parent, spouse, child, civil partner or partner. In addition they can also be any person whose action or failure may have contributed to the death. This could be government bodies such as the NHS, police force etc or one of the witnesses.
When the final inquest hearing is arranged, the coroner may call witnesses to help them determine the answers to the four questions they have to answer.
Alternatively, they may consider documentary evidence if the content is not disputed, parties agree or it is not feasible to call a witness to the hearing.
Interested persons will be asked questions by the coroner and by other parties or their representative. The interested persons can also ask questions of witnesses and have rights to address the coroner in respect of what conclusions may be relevant to the case.
Having heard the evidence, the coroner will come to a conclusion and may also make recommendations if there is a finding that any death could have been prevented, or an issues arise which may give rise to a risk of further deaths (for example in a policy or procedure which has been considered during the inquest).
How long will an inquest take?
This will depend on the nature of the inquest. A fast track inquest may be concluded in a very short timescale, whereas more complicated inquests may take several months to get to the final hearing and there may be preliminary hearings arranged called pre-inquest reviews. These set an agenda for matters to be considered at the final hearing and parties may ask for certain witnesses to be called or evidence to be provided.
The final inquest hearing length will vary – dependant on the number of witness to be called to give live evidence, what evidence can be read and whether a jury is required.
When is a jury required?
A jury is required by law in cases where the death of an individual took place in state detention, or following contact with the police if the cause of death is unnatural.
A jury must also hear a case that involves a death caused by a notifiable accident, poisoning or disease.
A coroner also has a discretion to arrange a jury inquest if there is sufficient reason.
If an inquest has been suspended then resumed, and a jury would be required, then the coroner has powers to resume with a jury or dispense and proceed with a coroner only inquest.
What is an article 2?
An Article 2 or ‘Middleton’ type inquest is an enhanced type of inquest where the question of ‘how’ a person died, is extended to how and in what circumstances.
Article 2 provides positive and negative obligations on state bodies:
- Positive – to protect life of citizens by:
- Putting in place a legislative and administrative framework to protect the right to life (systemic duty) and
- An operational duty to take measure to protect an individual whose life is at risk in certain circumstances (for example when the state knows or ought to know that there is a real and immediate risk to life (Osman v UK)). Some cases automatically engage this duty such as a violent death or suicide in state detention. Other cases need to be considered on their individual facts.
- Negative – A negative duty not to take life unless this can be justified (for example for protecting the public in a police shooting scenario).
If there appears to be a breach of the above duties, then an enhanced investigative duty to consider the death applies and this is met by holding an Article 2 or ‘Middleton’ type inquest.
Do I need a solicitor at an inquest?
In cases where there are controversial issues and family members have concerns about the cause of death it is important to seek legal advice. Quite often other parties such as hospitals or businesses will have legal representation which can make the process very daunting if you are alone. Having an experienced advocate with you can often assist in getting the answers to ‘how’ a loved one came by their death.
Many clients have found value in seeking initial guidance on the inquest procedure and discussing issues with one of our team. Our team aim to assist bereaved families by providing empathetic and objective advice on issues to help manage the process and expectations of what outcomes may be achieved.