An inquest is a judicial process and a Coroner’s Court is a court of law.
The purpose of an inquest is to establish who the deceased person was and when, where and how they died. An inquest is generally concerned with fact finding and is not a trial or fault finding process.
In certain circumstances however, where a state organisation may have had responsibility for the person who has died, then the scope of the inquest will be wider and the hearing more comprehensive. The inquest will look at the circumstances in which the death occurred, as well as how the person died.
Usually the enquiries into the death can be completed within eight weeks.
The inquest is then held within a further four weeks. However some cases can take longer.
The vast majority of inquests are held within six months of the death.
You are only obliged to attend an inquest if you have received a witness summons to attend.
It is an offence to disregard the summons.
The Coroner’s Officer will be present to assist.
Victim Support provide a witness support service for those that attend as either witnesses, family, or friends at the Coroners Court. Volunteers, who have received training in court, inquest and bereavement procedure and issues, are on hand, prior, during and after the inquest.
The volunteer role is to assist practically and procedurally at the inquest, also to offer emotional support to those who find the process difficult and upsetting.
The benefit of a friendly and welcoming face, and someone who can listen to any concerns the witness or family member has, will have been appreciated by many people attending the inquest.
The Coroner’s Chaplain attends most inquests and is available to offer support to families and witnesses.
The Coroner will introduce the inquest explaining who everyone is and what will be happening.
The Coroner will call and question the relevant witnesses who have to give evidence either by swearing an oath or making a declaration.
Family members and other ‘properly interested persons’ can ask questions of the witnesses after the coroner has done so.
The Coroner will read any statements.
The Coroner will summarise the evidence and then pronounce the conclusion, or where there is a jury, give them directions as to the range of conclusions which they can consider.
A jury will only be required in certain circumstances, in particular when the death occurs in prison or police custody or results from an accident at work.
The procedure of a jury inquest is somewhat different, however the function and purpose remains the same.
The Coroner will explain at the start of the inquest everything that is expected of the jury in dealing with the case.
You will be able to claim allowances at prescribed rates for travelling, subsistence and for financial loss (such as loss of earnings) if you are called to serve on a jury.
The Coroner decides who should be called as witnesses to the inquest.
You will be told of the witnesses who are to attend and if you want to suggest the Coroner should call someone then you can ask the Coroner to consider calling them but the final decision will rest with the Coroner.
The Coroner can issue a formal notice requiring a witness to attend and to produce any relevant document to the inquest. If the person fails to attend then the Coroner may consider issuing a warrant enforcing their attendance.
The Coroner may decide to read written evidence at the inquest if it is not possible for the witness to give evidence at the inquest within a reasonable time, if there is a good reason why they should not attend or it is believed they will not attend the inquest or the evidence is unlikely to be disputed.
The Coroner will ask for the views of the bereaved family and any interested persons before making a decision in this respect.
In these circumstances the Coroner will adjourn the inquest until after the criminal court proceedings have been concluded. It may then be unnecessary to reopen the inquest.
It is sometimes possible to challenge the verdict of the inquest by way of an application to the High Court for a judicial review.
You should take legal advice about such a course of action as soon as possible after the Coroner has made a decision.
At the conclusion of an inquest the Coroner may decide, in certain limited circumstances, that action may need to be taken to prevent or reduce the possibility of further fatalities and send a report to any authority with power to take such action.
Anybody who receives such a report must provide a response and copies of the report and response will be sent to the immediate family members and other ‘properly interested persons’.
Inquests have to be held in public and the media are entitled to attend.