Inquests – What do they mean for families?
Inquests are the saddest court appearances for any lawyer to attend on behalf of the family of a deceased person. Anne Maguire, Top Ranked PI Lawyer explains more.
Inquests can be both hugely distressing for families but provide some comfort in enabling the family of the deceased to find out what happened and to ask questions of police and medical experts who have investigated the accident.
The Coroners and Justice Act 2009 sets out the circumstances in which an Inquest must be held namely, where the cause of death is unknown or unnatural, caused by violence, neglect, medical errors or occurred in suspicious circumstances in prison or in custody. An Inquest can be held before a Coroner alone or sitting with a Jury. The appointment of a Jury is required if the death was not as a result of natural causes and happened when the deceased was in prison or police custody, or as result of police action. A Jury is also required if the deceased died whilst at work, poisoning or disease but the Coroner always has the discretion to appoint a Jury if he thinks it appropriate.
The remit of an Inquest is however limited. It is restricted to answering four questions:
- Who was the deceased?
- Place of death
- Time of death
- By what means and in what circumstance they came by their death
Inquests cannot investigate who was to blame as there are different courts that have the responsibility for answering questions of criminal and/or civil liability. Health and Safety prosecutions can be brought where there is a death in the course of employment, or criminal proceedings can be brought by the Crown Prosecution Service where death is caused by careless or reckless driving or in a civil court where there is claim for damages arising out of the death of a person as a result of an act or omission of another person.
In advance of the Inquest, the Coroner will disclose any witness evidence, expert reports or police or health and safety investigation reports. This allows the lawyer to discuss the evidence with the family so they are as well prepared as possible. It allows the lawyer to identify those organisations or individuals who may face some responsibility for the death of the deceased. However, the lawyer for the family must be mindful that whilst they can assist the family by asking questions to clarify any issues they cannot force a witness to answer a question which may incriminate them.