When a death has occurred, it is important to understand the cause – for public health and safety, for friends and relatives, and to prevent it from happening again.
In many cases, this is straightforward. But, when it isn’t, an investigation may need to be carried out to identify the cause of death, which may result in an inquest.
What is an inquest?
An inquest is a legal process which investigates the cause of death in cases where this is unknown.
It may seek to establish where, when or how a person died. It may even need to establish the person’s identity first.
An inquest will be led by a Coroner, who will decide which ‘interested parties’ should be called to give evidence. Interested parties may include:
The Coroner will then reach a verdict, which may be:
Where a person dies in custody when the death is not clearly due to natural causes, or if their death was linked to their own or someone else’s actions while at work, or to certain health and safety issues, a jury will be called and determine the verdict.
Although an inquest may lead to further investigations or prosecutions, an inquest does not assign blame, criminal guilt or civil liability.
Why are inquests necessary?
Inquests are held to determine an unknown cause of death. There are a number of reasons as to why this might be done.
Supporting loved ones: For families who have lost relatives, an inquest may provide a degree of closure by identifying a cause of death.
Public Interest: An inquest may investigate deaths that occur under circumstances where state agents or public policy may be implicated, such as deaths in police custody or hospitals. The findings can trigger reforms and prevent future incidents.
Legal implications: While inquests do not establish legal fault, their findings can be critical evidence in subsequent civil or criminal proceedings. They may influence decisions to bring charges or seek damages.
The role of the jury
Most inquests are held without a jury, conducted solely by the Coroner. However, certain situations require a jury’s involvement.
A jury may be called when the death occurs in custody, in the course of employment, or under circumstances that may be harmful to public health and safety.
The primary reasons why a jury may be involved in a case at Coroner’s Court are:
Public interest: In sensitive or high-profile cases, involving a jury can add an additional layer of impartiality and public trust to the proceedings.
Collective decision-making: A jury brings multiple perspectives to the case, which can be beneficial in assessing complex or contentious matters. This collaborative approach aims to arrive at a more thorough understanding of the circumstances surrounding the death.
Impartiality: The jury serves as a check on the coroner’s authority. It ensures that the inquest’s findings are not solely dependent on a single individual’s viewpoints or interpretations.
According to the Coroners Statistics 2022, the number of inquests in England and Wales is growing – 36 per cent of all deaths were reported to a Coroner in 2022, while 11 per cent more inquests were opened compared to 2021.
The law around inquests and their outcomes is complex. This is because the findings of an inquest can have wide-ranging legal implications for any of the parties involved.
For accurate, up-to-date advice on the inquest process, or representation at an inquest, you should seek support from an experienced professional.
Our expert team will be happy to advise you on matters relating to inquests, so please contact us today.
Solicitor – litigation and dispute resolution
Prior to qualifying as a solicitor, I worked within the education sector as a senior leader in a secondary school.
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