LEGAL CORNER: Inquests – why and when do we have them?

THE purpose of an inquest is to establish the facts and not apportion blame.

The proceedings and evidence at an inquest are directed solely to ascertain who the deceased was, how, when and where did he/she come by her/his death.

Where a death involved or may have involved a Breach of Article 2 of the European Convention of Human Rights, then the inquest into the death should investigate not only ‘the means by which’ but also ‘in what broad circumstance’ the deceased came by his/her death.

In cases in which the focus of the inquest is the clinical care provided to the deceased, Article 2 may be engaged if the evidence gives the coroner cause to suspect the death was or may have been more than minimally contributed to by either gross failure on the part of those treating the deceased or systemic failure.

A coroner must summon a jury if there is reason to suspect that the deceased’s death occurred ‘in circumstances the continuance or possible recurrence of which is prejudicial to the health or safety of the public or any section of the public’.

There are no parties at an inquest, merely interested persons, such as a spouse, parent, legal representative, insurer, any person who may have caused or contributed to the death.

A witness at an inquest is not obliged to answer any questions tending to incriminate himself/herself.

The statement of or notes of an interview with a person whose conduct may be called into question may be read at the inquest by the interviewer.

There is no special dress, legal advocates do not appear robed. It is open to the public and press and all participants

usually remain seated while giving evidence.

The coroner examines the witnesses and conducts the enquiry.

At the end of the inquest, the coroner or the jury, if there is one, completes the ‘Record of an Inquest’ and the conclusion will be set out in the record form, the word verdict is no longer used.

A coroner is now under a duty to report actions to prevent future deaths to a person the coroner believes may have the power to take such actions.

Public funding is rarely available for inquests, but it is important that relatives seek experienced legal advice before attending or giving evidence at an inquest.