An inquest is a legal investigation to establish the circumstances surrounding a person’s death, including how, when and why the death occurred. In cases where the identity of the deceased is unknown, an inquest will also try to determine that identity.
Unlike criminal trials, the purpose of an inquest is not to specifically determine who was responsible for a person’s death. Whilst evidence is given by witnesses, there is no prosecution or defence advocate.
However, it is still important that parties at an inquest are properly represented. Some parties will have the status of a 'properly interested person' such as a healthcare professional caring for the deceased at the time of death. It is important to the reputation of that professional, and relevant to other possible regulatory & disciplinary proceedings, that their interests are protected.
The families of the deceased are also likely to want a voice at the inquest, as that is their opportunity to have relevant questions put to the witnesses to the death of their loved one.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, police custody or a secure psychiatric unit
- the cause of death is still unknown after a post-mortem
Coroners are independent judicial officers who are usually lawyers or doctors with appropriate training.
An inquest will be opened soon after the death of the deceased. 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 until after any other investigations e.g. criminal prosecutions have been completed. The adjournment can be long 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 either themeselves or though a legal representative such as ourselves. Someone with a proper interest is:
- 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)
- 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
- any person appointed by a government department
The coroner will decide who is given the status of a 'properly interested person'.
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.
If you have interested person status we can represent on a private basis, or under the terms of an insurance scheme or membership of a trade union or professional body.
Whilst legal aid is not usually available for legal representation during an inquest, an application for 'exceptional case funding' can be made to the Legal Aid Agency.