An inquest is a judicial inquiry to ascertain the facts relating to an incident in which a person has died. It is an investigation, presided over by a Coroner, into who the person was, and where, when and how they died.
There are a number of circumstances when an inquest should be held, generally because the cause of death is uncertain or unnatural. A death can be referred to the coroner by a doctor, the police or the registrar of deaths. This does not mean that an inquest will always be held but that the Coroner will examine the evidence and decide whether an inquest is necessary.
If a member of your family has died, perhaps following an operation in hospital or whilst they were under the care of a mental health trust, it will not necessarily be the case that an inquest will automatically be held. However, if you have concerns about the manner or circumstances in which a relative died then family members, or representatives of the family, such as a solicitor, can contact the Coroner directly to share their views and concerns about their relative’s death. This may result in an inquest then taking place.
In certain circumstances an inquest must be held in front of a jury. You may hear these types of inquest referred to as article 2 inquests. About 1% of inquests held each year are in front of a jury. Usually HM Coroner, alone, will preside.
It is important to realise that an inquest is not like other Court hearings – the Coroner is not allowed to decide any issues of civil or criminal liability. It is merely a fact finding exercise and we do find that relatives are very often disappointed and confused by the nature of proceedings and narrow remit that an inquest has.
There are a number of verdicts that a Coroner can return, examples of which include natural causes, accident or misadventure, lawful killing and unlawful killing. However, there are circumstances in which the Coroner, or the jury, if there is one, may give a narrative verdict. A narrative verdict is a very powerful way of exposing any problems or mistakes that have been made.