What is an inquest?
An inquest is an inquiry into the circumstances surrounding a death. It is conducted by a coroner and is held when particular circumstances arise, including when a death is sudden and unexpected. The purpose of an inquest is to find out:
- the identity of the deceased;
- the place of their death;
- the date and time of their death; and
- how they came by their death.
An inquest is not a trial. There are no formal parties, just interested persons. Under the Coroners and Justice Act 2009, individuals that qualify automatically as interested persons include family members of the deceased. However, the chief coroner can designate any individual that they believe to have ‘sufficient interest’ as an interested person.
Inquests can be held either in front of a coroner alone, or a coroner and a jury. A jury will be needed, for example, if the relevant death occurred in custody as the result of an unnatural cause, or where the coroner is satisfied there is ‘sufficient reason’ to call for one.
What happens during an inquest?
Sometimes inquests can be concluded within a few weeks but if a hearing is needed the process can often last many months. Most inquests include the following three stages:
At the beginning of the investigation the coroner may request a post-mortem examination. Following this, the pathologist (a doctor who specialises in understanding the nature and causes of disease) prepares a report containing their findings about the cause of death.
- Pre-inquest review hearings
Coroners may hold pre-inquest review hearings in more complex cases. These are held in the same way as the main inquest. No evidence is heard at this stage, however, and the focus is on the practical issues that need to be taken in preparation for the main inquest, including matters such as the disclosure of documents; likely length of the hearing; creation of witness statements; and whether a jury is required.
- Inquest hearing
In the main inquest the coroner will call witnesses to give evidence. Some witness statements can be read out but only under the direction of the coroner. The coroner, interested persons and jury can all ask questions of the witnesses.
If there is a jury, they will determine when, where and how the deceased came by their death at the end of the inquest. The coroner will direct the jury about which conclusions they may reach and explain their obligations as a jury. The coroner will then ask them to retire and consider their conclusion.
In inquests heard without a jury, the coroner sums up the evidence heard, makes findings of fact about the identity of the deceased and the place, date and time of their death, and reaches a conclusion as to how they came by their death.
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