When somebody dies suddenly and unexpectedly, for example as the result of a fatal accident, a Coroner’s Inquest may be required to determine information about the death. If your loved one has been killed as a result of a fatal accident, you may want to understand more about what happens at a Coroner’s Inquest, whether or not you need to be involved in the process, and how a solicitor can help you throughout.
What is a Coroner’s Inquest?
The aim of a Coroner’s Inquest is to conclude who the deceased was, how they died, where they died, and when they died. An Inquest usually occurs when the cause of death is unnatural, unknown, or violent. As part of their investigations, Coroners will interview witnesses and other key parties to determine the cause of death. Once the Inquest has been concluded, the Coroner can finalise the death certificate with the cause of death.
It’s important to note that the conclusion of an Inquest does not equate to liability; formal allegations or accusations cannot be made at a Coroner’s Court Inquest. Nevertheless, if you are pursuing a fatal accident claim, then the Coroner’s report and conclusion of the Inquest could help your case.
Do I need a solicitor at a Coroner’s Inquest?
As a Properly Interested Person, you are entitled to have legal representation at a Coroner’s Court Inquest. If you believe your loved one’s death was caused by negligence, we would advise seeking the support of a specialist solicitor. Your solicitor can:
- Help to secure evidence for the Inquest
- Ask questions of any of the witnesses
- Ask questions of the Coroner
- Attend interviews with you
- Appeal the Coroner’s conclusion
- Deal with any press (if your case is subject to media attention)
- Help you build a case for a fatal accidents claim
What happens before the Coroner’s Inquest?
Before the Coroner’s Inquest, a post mortem is typically carried out by an independent pathologist (a specialist doctor) to determine the medical cause of death. The coroner selects the pathologist, however the deceased’s family can ask for another doctor to observe the post mortem (this would be at an expense to the family). The pathologist will detail their findings in a report, setting out what they believe was the cause of death. After reading the post mortem report, the Coroner will decide whether an Inquest is needed. If an Inquest is needed, the Coroner will investigate the cause of death.
Who attends the Coroner’s Inquest?
The Coroner’s Court Inquest is held in an open court and is attended by the Coroner and:
- ‘Properly Interested Persons’ (PIPs) and their legal representatives
Properly Interested Persons are close family members of the deceased and are allowed to have an active role in the Inquest. The deceased’s husband, wife, civil partner or child is automatically considered a PIP, however the Coroner would also typically consider siblings, next-of-kin and long-term partners PIPs.
Typically, the Coroner will request for a family member to attend the Inquest – this is usually the person who made the police statement and does not necessarily have to be a PIP. If you have been requested to attend the Inquest as a family member but would prefer not to, then you can apply to be excused in a written letter to the Coroner.
Any other family members or close friends who have not been asked and who do not have PIP status are able to attend the inquest. They may also bring somebody for support – this person does not need to have known the deceased.
- Witnesses and their legal representatives
The Coroner will call upon witnesses to attend the Inquest. Witnesses are required to attend by law and may include eyewitnesses, medical professionals and police officers. Evidence provided by witnesses at a Coroner’s Court Inquest is given under oath, i.e. witnesses are legally obligated to tell the truth. On occasion, a witness may not need to provide evidence orally. Instead, they may be permitted to give a written statement or a report. If the witness is giving evidence in person, they may be asked questions by the Coroner, family members and PIPs. Witnesses are entitled to have legal representation.
- A jury
Although rare, the coroner may call upon a jury to hear the Inquest case. According to section 7 of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009, if the Senior Coroner suspects any of the following circumstances to be true, they would be required to request a jury:
- The deceased died while in custody or otherwise in state detention and either the death was violent or unnatural, or the cause of death is unknown.
- The death resulted from an act of omission of a police officer or a member of a service police force in the purported execution of their duty, or that the death was caused by a notifiable accident, poisoning or disease.
Alternatively, the Senior Coroner can summon a jury if they think there is sufficient reasoning for doing so.
Because the Inquest is held in an open court, members of the press are allowed to attend, however this is rare and would typically only occur if the case had media attention. If you are attending an Inquest as a family member or close friend of the deceased, you have no obligation to speak with the media.
What happens at a Coroner’s Court Hearing?
- Once the Coroner arrives in the court room, they will explain what an Inquest is and what will be covered in the court session.
- If there is a jury, they will enter the court room and be sworn in.
- The Coroner will invite witnesses one-by-one to take the stand and read through their statements.
- The Coroner will ask the witness any questions they have.
- Once the Coroner has finished their questioning, they will invite the legal representatives of the family and/or the family members themselves to ask the witness questions.
- Next, the Coroner will read out any other pieces of evidence, written statements or reports.
- Legal representatives will then be permitted to ask the Coroner any questions they may have.
- Lastly, the Coroner will come to their conclusion and share this with the court. However, if there is a jury, the Coroner will sum up evidence before asking the jury to step out, confer and come to their conclusion.
What conclusions can a Coroner come to?
The Corner will conclude the Inquest by determining the cause of death. This does not mean any blame or formal accusations are placed. Conclusions can include:
- Accident or misadventure
- Industrial Disease
- Lawful killing
- Unlawful killing
- Road Traffic Collision
- Natural causes
- Open – this means the case could not be concluded and is left open
- Narrative – this is where the Coroner writes a brief and factual summary describing circumstances of the death without placing blame
If you wish to challenge the Coroner’s conclusion, then you should do so as soon as possible and instruct a specialist solicitor to help you with this.
How long does a Coroner’s Inquest take?
Unfortunately, the Coroner’s investigation can take months, depending on the complexity of the case and logistical factors. Most Coroners will aim to conclude Inquests within six to nine months. The Coroner’s Court Inquest itself can take anywhere from 20 minutes to several days.
Can you have a funeral if there is an Inquest?
Typically, an Inquest should not delay your loved one’s funeral. Although the post mortem could delay the funeral slightly, it is unlikely that you’ll have to wait for the Coroner’s Inquest to conclude as this can take a few months.
To enable the funeral, burial or cremation to take place sooner, the Coroner will issue an interim death certificate (known as a Certificate of the Face of Death). This certificate does not confirm the cause of death, instead it just confirms the identity of the deceased and the fact they have died.
Will the grant of probate be delayed if there is an Inquest?
It is unlikely that an Inquest would delay the grant of probate process. The Probate Registry will accept the Coroner’s Certificate of the Face of Death. Therefore, once this has been issued by the Coroner, you can proceed with the application. A wills, trusts and probate solicitor can help you with this process.
We hope this guide to a Coroner’s Court Inquest helps you feel more comfortable and confident with what to expect from the process. If you are involved in a Coroner’s Inquest and are seeking legal representation, please don’t hesitate to contact Newtons Solicitors. Our specialist solicitors can guide you through the process and ensure no stone is left unturned.