An inquest is a legal investigation to establish the circumstances surrounding a person’s death, including how, when and why the death occurred.
In some cases, an inquest will also try to determine the deceased person’s identity.
The investigation is held in public at a coroner’s court in cases where:
- a death was sudden, violent or unnatural
- a death occurred in prison or police custody
- the cause of death is still unknown after a post-mortem (an examination of a body after death)
A coroner’s court is a legal body that helps determine how, when and why a person died. Coroners are independent judicial officers who are usually lawyers or doctors with appropriate training in law.
Unlike criminal trials, inquests do not try to establish whether anyone was responsible for a person’s death. Evidence is given by witnesses but there is no prosecution or defence.
When an inquest is held, the coroner must inform the deceased person’s partner, nearest relative and representative (if they are different).
What happens during an inquest?
An inquest will be opened soon after the death. This allows the death to be recorded, the deceased to be identified and the coroner to give authorisation for a burial or cremation to take place as soon as possible.
After the inquest has been opened, it may be adjourned (postponed) until after any other investigations have been completed. The average length of adjournment is 27 weeks, although in some cases it may be longer if the case is particularly complex.
In some cases, the coroner may hold one or more additional hearings before an inquest begins, known as pre-inquest hearings or reviews. These allow the extent of the inquest to be considered.
During an inquest, witnesses chosen by the coroner will give evidence. The coroner usually asks the witness to summarise events in their own words before asking them questions to clarify any points.
Anyone who has a “proper interest” can also question a witness. Someone with a proper interest is:
- a parent, spouse, child, civil partner and anyone acting for the deceased
- anyone who gains from a life insurance policy of the deceased
- any insurer who has issued such a policy
- anyone whose actions the coroner believes may have contributed to the death accidentally or otherwise
- the chief officer of police (who may only ask questions through a lawyer)
- any person appointed by a government department
The coroner will decide who is given proper interest status.
When a jury is needed
Most inquests are carried out by the coroner alone. However, in some circumstances, the coroner will call a jury to decide the verdict.
For example, a jury will be required if the death occurred in prison or in police custody, or if the death was the result of an accident at work.
The coroner can also call a jury at their own discretion.
Relatives of the deceased can attend an inquest and are able to ask the witnesses questions. However, they are only able to ask questions relating to the medical cause and circumstances of the death.
It is also possible for a relative of the deceased to be represented by a lawyer. This may be particularly important if the death was the result of a road accident, an accident at work or in other circumstances where a compensation claim might be made.
However, legal aid is sometimes available for legal representation during an inquest.
A coroner’s court is a legal body that helps determine how, when and why a person died
If the post-mortem examination shows that a death is not from natural causes (either immediately after the post-mortem examination or after further tests have been carried out) an inquest will be held (in Scotland a ‘fatal accident inquiry’ although the circumstances in which a fatal accident enquiry may be held and how they are arranged is significantly different).
There are certain cases where a coroner is obliged to hold an inquest even when the death is from natural causes, such as when someone has been in state detention e.g under arrest or in prison, at the time of death.
The coroner will open the inquest in order to issue a burial order or cremation certificate (if not already issued immediately after the post-mortem examination) as well as hearing evidence confirming the identity of the deceased. The inquest will then be adjourned to be resumed at a later date. When the coroner’s investigations are complete, a date for the inquest is set and the people who need to know will be told. Inquests are open to the public and journalists are usually present. From 2013 most inquests should take place within 6 months of the death but this may take some time to implement as some parts of the country have rather longer waits.
Inquests are not permitted to determine blame and the conclusion (verdict) will not identify someone as having criminal or civil liability.
If police charge someone with causing the death, the inquest will not be resumed and the next of kin will be informed of the arrangements made to register the death. This is to avoid two different courts examining the same evidence.
Who can be witnesses at an inquest?
Coroners decide who should give evidence as a witness, and witnesses are required by law to attend. Anyone who believes that they may have information that may help can offer to give evidence by informing the coroner. If anyone believes a particular witness should attend, they should inform the coroner.
Anyone with a legitimate interest is also allowed to question witnesses at an inquest, for example, relatives.
The coroner must be made aware of anyone who believes they have a legitimate interest and the nature of their questions before the inquest.
If you have lost someone and you feel that you have a legitimate interest in contributing at an Inquest, we can help by ensuring that your right to contribute is protected.
We hold a Legal Aid contract and we are therefore able to offer Legal Aid to clients who are eligible and for those clients who are not entitled to Legal Aid we offer fixed fee packages as an affordable alternative.
For your convenience we provide a free initial consultation to enable us to assess your eligibility for legal aid and provide you with an affordable alternative where legal aid is not available