A quick guide to the Inquest system
The high profile Inquest into the death of Mark Duggan in January of this year may have raised questions for those who have never been involved with the Inquest process before. If so, we have prepared a quick guide to the system which you may find helpful.
Coronial (Inquest) Law is a very confusing area which most of us hope we will never have to deal with and those who do often find it a difficult and distressing process to deal with.
What is a Coroner?
A Coroner is an Independent Officer appointed by the Local Authority and is usually a lawyer or doctor (occasionally both). Their purpose is to inquire into deaths which occur in their districts and to determine whether an Inquest should be held. Usually coroners inquire into sudden, violent and unnatural deaths or when deaths occur in prison or police custody.
What is an Inquest?
An Inquest is a fact finding hearing which is held to establish the name of the person who has died and in what circumstances their death occurred. The purpose of an Inquest is not to establish blame, but can make clear any facts which make it clear that a person’s death was caused by failure or neglect.
How do I find out if an Inquest is going to be held and who can attend?
The Coroner must notify the deceased person’s next of kin/personal representative and all interested parties of the date, time and place of the inquest within one week of setting the hearing date. Details of the Inquest must also be made publically available.
Will the Inquest take place with a Jury?
Not necessarily. Most Inquests are held without a Jury, but there are some circumstances in which the Coroner MUST sit with a Jury. These are:-
- If the Death occurred in circumstances where there is a positive obligation on the state to protect life, such as in Prison or Police custody.
- Where the death resulted from an accident at work.
In these cases the Coroner deals with matters of law and procedure and the Jury is required to reach a conclusion based on the facts of the case.
What findings can the Coroner or Jury make?
A Jury sitting at an Inquest must listen to the evidence presented and reach a conclusion as to how a person came by their death. There is a list of nine possible conclusions which a Jury can reach, these are:-
- Accident or misadventure
- Alcohol/drug related
- Industrial disease
- Lawful/unlawful killing
- Natural causes
- Open (where despite the evidence heard a cause of death cannot be determined or explained)
- Road traffic collision
It is also possible that the Coroner and Jury can return a “narrative verdict” which essentially allows the Jury or Coroner to set out in writing the circumstances which brought about a person’s death.
What action can be taken to prevent future deaths?
In cases where it is determined that a person’s death was preventable the Coroner has a duty to report the case to the Chief Coroner and the authorities with powers to take action to prevent further deaths. The purpose of the report is to highlight the failings which contributed to or caused death and to ensure action is taken to address those failings.
A response to the report must be made in writing within 56 days setting out the steps which have been taken to address any failures which were highlighted at Inquest.
I have received correspondence from the Coroner. Can I get advice?
Following the Implementation of the Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 the availability of free legal advice in relation to Inquests is now limited to cases considered “Exceptional”.
Funding is not generally available due to the informal, non- adversarial process of an Inquest. However, there are two grounds on which Exceptional Case funding can be granted.
The first is where representation is required for the family of a deceased person under Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights where it is arguable that there has been a breach, by the state, of its positive obligation to protect life.
The second is where there is a determination by the Legal Aid Agency that, in the particular circumstances of the case, the provision of advocacy for an individual is in the “wider Public Interest” this means that the outcome of the Inquest is likely to produce significant benefits for a class of person, other than the applicant and members of the applicant’s family. This is likely to be the case where an inquest will identify dangerous practices, systemic failings or other findings which identify significant risks to the life, health or safety of others.
Applications to the Legal Aid Agency are subject to strict means testing which we will be happy to discuss with you.
David Gray Solicitors LLP has a specialist team of criminal solicitors able to assist with any queries you may have regarding Inquests. Our team of Inquest solicitors are: Brian Hegarty, Partner and Head of the Criminal Law Department, Clare Routledge, Partner and Jonathan Cousins. All three are higher rights advocates and have a wealth of experience at Inquests.
We will be happy to answer any queries you may have regarding inquest and whether funding may be available.