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What is an Inquest? What does and Inquest involve? Do I need to instruct a solicitor to represent me at an Inquest?
By Ali Cloak
I am a Solicitor specialising in medical negligence and, in particular, representing families who have lost a loved one due to negligent medical treatment. In some circumstances a Coroner will hold an inquest and this can seem a daunting prospect for families who have never had any experience of inquests previously and do not know what to expect. I therefore thought it would be helpful to set out answers to some key and frequently asked questions about inquests.
An inquest is an investigation held in order to establish the identity of the deceased, where they died, when they died and how they died.
Generally, an inquest is only held where someone has died a violent or unnatural death, where there has been a sudden death and the cause is unknown or where someone has died in a place or circumstance where there is legal requirement to hold an inquest, such as whilst in prison custody.
The Coroner’s Court is distinct from a civil court. Unlike in civil proceedings, the inquest is not designed to blame specific individuals for injury or death. The inquest is intended to be non-adversarial.
After an inquest has been formally opened it may be many months before a hearing is arranged and during this time the Coroner will gather necessary evidence. In more complex cases, there may be a Pre-Inquest Review hearing arranged, so that the Coroner and interested parties can plan for the inquest hearing itself. Interested parties at an inquest will include the family of the deceased. Typical issues considered at a Pre-Inquest Review hearing include: determining the length of the inquest, the witnesses to be called, whether a jury is required and also identifying documents which should be disclosed in advance of the inquest hearing.
At the inquest itself, the Coroner will call witnesses to give evidence on the circumstances surrounding the death. Witnesses may include family members, the pathologist, medical experts and anyone else involved in the events leading up to the death, for example for deaths in hospital this may include the doctors and nurses caring for the deceased. Sometimes witnesses will not be called to attend the inquest in person and their statements will be read out by the Coroner instead. This is usually the case where their evidence is not thought to be controversial or is not considered key to the inquiry.
After all the witnesses have been questioned the Coroner will sum up the evidence and will then give their conclusions on who the deceased was and how, when and where they died.
There are a number of conclusions that can be considered, including short form conclusions such as ‘suicide’ or ‘natural causes’ or a longer narrative conclusion, where a more detailed explanation is set out.
If there is a jury then the Coroner will set out which conclusions they can consider based on the evidence that has been heard. The jury will then retire to consider their conclusions, which must be agreed by them all.
Following the conclusion of the inquest, it may be possible to bring a civil claim for compensation if there is indication that there may have been negligence which has caused or contributed to the death.
Whilst the inquest process is designed with bereaved family members in mind, we find that relatives of the deceased really appreciate the involvement of a specialist inquest solicitor. Often, complex legal or medical issues arise and it can be very overwhelming for a family member to represent themselves in the proceedings, whilst also dealing with the emotions relating to the death of their loved one.
Instructing a qualified lawyer, who is experienced in coronial law, will ensure that the family’s concerns are fully explored and that appropriate questions are put to the witnesses and also that appropriate conclusions are reached, particularly if the Deceased had received poor care prior to their death. An inquest can be very distressing for the family of the deceased and instructing a specialist will ensure the process goes as smoothly as possible.
In some circumstances, legal representation can be funded publicly, at no cost to the family of the deceased. Alternatively, it may be that representation can be funded privately, or by a ‘no win, no fee’ agreement if the death was caused by negligence for which a civil claim for compensation is also being investigated.
I have only answered some key questions here and there is a lot more information to be understood about inquests and what is involved. If you are concerned about the circumstances of the death of a loved one, or would like to find out more about an inquest or about instructing a specialist solicitor to represent you in an inquest, then please contact me or one of my colleagues for further advice.