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What is a coroner's inquest?
An inquest is an inquiry into who has died and how, when and where the death occurred. An inquest is not a trial; the coroner cannot blame anyone for the death. You can find more information about inquests below.
The purpose of an inquest
The inquest is an inquiry to find out who has died, and how, when and where they died, together with information needed by the registrar of deaths, so that the death can be registered. An inquest is usually opened primarily to record that a death has occurred and to identify the dead person. It will then be adjourned until any police enquiries and the coroner's investigations are completed. The full inquest can then be resumed.
An inquest is a limited inquiry into the facts surrounding a death. An inquest does not determine blame and the verdict must not identify someone as having criminal or civil liability. An inquest is not a trial.
Possible inquest verdict
The possible verdict of an inquest includes:
Attendance at an inquest
When the coroner's investigations are complete, a date for the inquest is set. The people entitled to be notified will be told, if their details are known to the coroner. Inquests are open to the public and journalists are usually present.
Witness called to give evidence at an inquest
Coroners decide who should give evidence as a witness at an inquest. Anyone who believes they may help can offer to give evidence by informing the coroner. Anyone who believes a particular witness should be called should inform the coroner. Witnesses can be compelled to attend an inquest.
Anyone who the coroner decides has what is called a "proper interest" may question a witness at the inquest. He or she can get a lawyer to ask questions or they can ask questions themselves. Questions must be sensible and relevant.
A "properly interested person"
Witnesses will first be questioned by the coroner and there may be further questions by "properly interested persons" or their legal representatives. Questions must be relevant to the purpose of the inquest. A "properly interested person" is defined as:
If you ask, the coroner or the coroner's officer will advise you whether you have a proper interest.
Using legal aid to cover representation at the inquest
Legal aid is not available to cover representation at the inquest.
Inquests with a jury
The inquest will be held with a jury if the death occurs:
In these cases, the coroner decides matters of law and the jury decides the verdict.
Notes of evidence at an inquest can be seen by properly interested persons, or copies may be obtained on payment of a fee. The record may be a transcript from a tape recording or the coroner's own notes. These notes may not be a full verbatim record.
If someone has been charged with causing the death
Where a person has been charged with causing someone's death, by murder or manslaughter for example, the inquest is adjourned until the person's trial is over. Before adjourning, the coroner finds out who the deceased was and how he or she died. The coroner then sends a form to the registrar of deaths to allow the death to be registered. When the trial is over, the coroner will not normally resume the inquest.
If a charge is to be heard in the Magistrates' Court, the inquest should be completed before the court hearing. If a charge is heard in the Crown or higher courts, the coroner is advised of the outcome, the registrar is informed and the inquest is not normally re-opened.
Civil proceedings (for example, for compensation) are not dependent on the outcome of an inquest or criminal proceedings and usually must be started within three years of a death. You will need a lawyer's advice about time limits and the procedures that apply.
Evidence given at an inquest, or during criminal proceedings, may help families understand what has happened. It may also assist in claims for compensation. You may wish to consider seeking legal advice before the inquest.
Holding the funeral before the inquest is finished
If an inquest is to be held, the coroner will normally allow burial or cremation of the body once the examination of the body is finished. However, delay can arise if someone has been charged in connection with the death.
Issue of a death certificate before the inquest is finished
A death certificate cannot normally be issued before the inquest is finished. However, when the inquest has been adjourned after someone has been charged with causing the death, a certificate can be issued. The coroner may provide an interim certificate of the fact of death so as to assist the personal representatives in looking after the estate, but this has no legal authority.
If you are dissatisfied with the outcome of an inquest
It is possible to challenge coroners' decisions or verdicts, but the grounds for doing so are complex and you should seek proper legal advice as soon as possible. An application for judicial review can be made, but this must be done within three months of completion of the inquest. An application for a fresh inquest can be made at any time, but all such applications should be made as soon as possible.