What happens in an inquest?

Wake Smith Solicitors 09 November 2016

I am often asked to give advice about inquests and sometimes to represent a family at the hearing itself. It is a difficult time for a bereaved family. It is important that the family have an awareness, as early as possible, about the process and an understanding of what they may need to do. Families should take early legal advice if they are unsure as to their role, and the nature of the enquiries. There are useful publications and resources and not every family will want or indeed need a lawyer, but it is better to make enquiries early, rather than just before the hearing.

Every death which is not from natural causes or where there may be uncertainty (and in some cases where inquests are legally mandated), will result in an inquest.

The first stage in an inquest is for the Coroner to formally ‘open’ the inquest in order to issue a Burial Order or a Cremation Certificate and for evidence as to the identity of the deceased. The inquest is then adjourned for the Coroner to carry out enquiries. It is then fixed for a later date once the Coroner has completed the enquiries or has a good idea when the enquiries will be complete. I am always keen to emphasis to clients that their involvement in the process at an early stage may prove important. Coroners will collect together the evidence they think necessary; but in many cases family may be aware of something the Coroner is not aware of. Sometimes the family may have some concerns. The Coroner will of course invite the family to let him or her know those concerns, but it is still important to consider what documents might be in existence which should be relevant to the inquest, and to obtain these early or check that the Coroner is obtaining them. The Coroner will see a post-mortem report and call the pathologist to give evidence. Otherwise the Coroner will only call witnesses to give evidence where it seems to be necessary.   Often such evidence is in the form of a written statement only. Therefore questions cannot be asked of the witness.

It is early on in the inquest process that the family can make a difference. There may be documents the Coroner should read. Perhaps the family or the solicitor needs to see those documents in advance to know what questions could usefully be asked.

It would be unwise to attend the inquest assuming that any questions a family will wish to ask can be raised. Some questions cannot be asked or cannot be asked in the form the family want, as an inquest is an enquiry into the circumstances of death and not a court attributing blame. Sometimes witnesses are not called to give evidence because the family has simply not checked who will be called or made representations about that.

I have been involved in inquests which have been very long running but following changes in the law in 2013, most inquests should now take place within 6 months. Sometimes inquests seem to happen very quickly and the families feel ill prepared. The coroner will only order a ‘pre-inquest review’, when it seems to be needed. This is a short hearing to discuss the enquiries that have been made and any further enquiries that should be made. However there are times when the family needs to ask for such a review hearing to raise issues with the Coroner before the final hearing. It might be, for example, that the Coroner should be asked to consider calling an inquest jury (relatively rare), or more usually a family might feel that it needs to explore the availability of documents such as hospital records and ask the Coroner to make certain specific enquiries.

It will be rare that any particular family member is required to attend the inquest Also, and it is perfectly appropriate to absent oneself from evidence that is particularly distressing. It is useful to prepare information from the family advance that the Coroner might find useful whether it is in the form of a witness statement or otherwise to communicate that effectively.

The Coroner will allow persons who have a legitimate interest to take a reasonable part in the Inquest, perhaps asking questions of witness or expert either directly or through their representation.  Not everyone who consults me will necessarily be allowed to ask questions and this can come as a shock. Where families are representing themselves and asking questions directly on the day of the inquest, they can still find it helpful to talk through the process and get some advice on how to approach the inquest and how to frame the questions.

In my experience every Coroner is different and the preparation needs to take this into account. There needs to be planning relating to key questions and issues and taking into account slightly different approaches that one Coroner may take from another.

Useful advice can be given on possible sources of funding for inquest representation and sign-posting other resources and guides.

In summary, bereaved families may well find the inquest process a little daunting and somewhat distressing although may need the enquiry in order to enable them to understand the background to a loved one’s death. It is critical that the family gain an understanding, early, about the process and the tools available to maximise benefit to them of the inquest process.

For further information about inquests please contact Holly Dobson at [email protected] or call 0114 224 2121



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