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Inquests: what they do and how they work

Sep 12, 2022 | Uncategorised

An inquest is a legal inquiry into an unexplained or suspicious death. This means any death that can’t be signed off straightforwardly by a doctor.

It’s not the same as a criminal trial which reaches a verdict of innocence or guilt through prosecution and defence. Rather, it seeks to establish how, where and when the person died. Once this has been found out, the verdict is recorded on the death certificate.

If the person died while detained by an “agent of the state” – for example, in a police station, prison or immigration detention centre – then an “Article 2 inquest” is required.

Crucially, inquests take place in public. If you’re an “interested person” such as a family member of the deceased, this can add to the stress of the occasion – and is one reason why legal representation is advisable.

In the event of a suspicious or unexpected death, there’s a chain of communication that looks like this:

  1. A doctor or the police refer the death to a coroner. A coroner is usually a lawyer or a doctor responsible for investigating deaths.
  2. The coroner carries out a post-mortem examination (or autopsy). They examine the body to ascertain the cause of death.
  3. The coroner then decides if an inquest is needed.

The use of “decides” in this third point may sound odd. You might wonder why it’s the coroner who decides, rather than relatives. The fact is that a coroner is legally required to carry out an autopsy if a death is suspicious, sudden or unnatural. Because of this legal obligation, consent from relatives isn’t needed.

What kind of verdicts do inquests make?

Inquests don’t seek to establish a verdict of innocence or guilt. Instead, the coroner’s verdict is a formal record of the cause of death. This could explain the death with a single cause such as suicide or accident, or through a narrative sequence of events that led to the death.

The conclusion can also be a combination of causes, such as “natural causes aggravated by neglect”. It can also be inconclusive if there isn’t sufficient evidence.

How long does an inquest take?

The inquest process lasts as long as it needs to. It can take a matter of hours, days or weeks. Article 2 inquests usually take longer.

But before the inquest can take place, several things need to happen. They are different depending on whether there’s been a post-mortem.

If there wasn’t an autopsy, a date for the final hearing is set for around four months after the inquest is opened. This interval is used to gather evidence.

If there was a post-mortem, the inquest is “listed for mention”. This is where the coroner and officer in charge of the case meet. After this meeting, a date for the final hearing is set for around three months later.

If there are criminal proceedings relating to the death, these have to be concluded before the inquest can begin.

What happens at an inquest?

Inquests take place in court. If you’re identified as an interested person, you can attend. You automatically fall into this category if you’re a relative of the deceased. Anyone else who attends has to be summoned by the coroner.

As we mentioned, inquests are open to the public unless the tenor of the hearing presents a conflict of interest with national security.

Inquests exist partly to give relatives or others close to the deceased the chance to ask questions about the death of the person they’ve lost.

Depending on the nature of the death, this could include asking questions of local authorities, health professionals or social workers.

If you attend an inquest as an interested person, you’re asked to make a statement and can question witnesses. If you find yourself in this position, it’s best to instruct an inquest lawyer to help draft the statement and ask these questions on your behalf.

In the case of an Article 2 inquest, families can raise concerns with the coroner ahead of the hearing, along with questions they would like witnesses to be asked. Again, this is something that a specialist lawyer can support you with.

Will there be a jury?

Usually, the coroner sits alone. There are some exceptions to this:

  1. If the death happened in custody for unknown reasons, or is suspected to be the result of force.
  2. If the death was caused by a “notifiable accident, poisoning or disease”.
  3. If the death happened because of an “act or omission” of a police officer.

In these instances, a jury is called.

How can an inquest lawyer help you?

The law surrounding unexplained deaths is complicated – and hard to penetrate without the help of a specialist. So if you believe that someone close to you died in suspicious circumstances, it’s advisable to seek specialist legal advice.

Inquests are emotionally charged events that can cause stress and upset. This can be exacerbated by the public nature of the hearing, especially if the press takes an interest. Having a specialist lawyer to represent you and make your voice heard can alleviate some of this turmoil. They can also help you to deal with any press intrusion.

A lawyer will help you navigate the process from start to end. They liaise with the coroner, sort out paperwork, make legal submissions to the coroner and question witnesses – all things that require patience and effort at the best of times.

On top of this, the other interested persons at the inquest will have legal representation – someone from the relevant hospital, say, or prison. Having a lawyer at your side can make this intimidating situation more manageable.

At Milners, we have substantial experience representing the families of bereaved people at inquests. We offer knowledgeable and sensitive support to help you navigate this difficult and emotionally charged process. If you are looking for representation, consider getting in touch for a free legal consultation.

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