An inquest is a legal investigation to find out the circumstances surrounding a person’s death, how, when and where the death occurred.
The investigation is held in public at a coroner’s court in cases where:
- a death was sudden, violent or unnatural
- a death occurred in prison or police custody
- the cause of death is still unknown after a post-mortem (the examination of a body after death)
A coroner's court is a legal body that helps determine how, when and why a person died. In some cases, the court will also try to determine the person's identity. Coroners are independent judicial officers who are usually lawyers or doctors.
Unlike criminal trials, inquests do not try to establish whether anyone was responsible for a person’s death. Evidence is given by witnesses but there is no prosecution or defence.
A coroner will also hold an inquest if a person died overseas and the body has been returned to Britain or a body is lost.
When an inquest is held, the coroner must inform the deceased person's partner, nearest relative and representative (if they are different).
What happens during an inquest?
An inquest will be opened soon after the death. This allows the death to be recorded, the deceased to be identified and the coroner to give authorisation for a burial or cremation to take place as soon as possible.
In some cases, before an inquest begins the coroner may hold one or more additional hearings, known as pre-inquest hearings or reviews. These allow the extent of the inquest to be considered.
After the inquest has been opened, it can be adjourned (postponed) until after any other investigations have been completed. The average length of adjournment is 27 weeks, although in some cases it may be longer if there are complications.
Anyone who has a 'proper interest' can question a witness at an inquest. Someone with a proper interest is:
- a parent, spouse, child, civil partner and anyone acting for the deceased
- anyone who gains from a life insurance policy of the deceased
- any insurer who has issued such a policy
- anyone whose actions the coroner believes may have contributed to the death accidentally or otherwise
- the chief officer of police (who may only be asked questions through a lawyer)
- any person appointed by a government department
The coroner will decide who is given proper interest status.
When a jury is needed
Most inquests are carried out by the coroner alone. However, in some circumstances, the coroner will call a jury. A jury will be required if:
- the death occurred in prison, police custody or resulted from an injury caused by a police officer
- the death was caused in circumstances which are legally required to be reported to the government, such as a road traffic, or railway, accident
- the death occurred in circumstances that could have a detrimental effect on the health and safety of the public
- the death was the result of an accident at work
The coroner can also call a jury at their own discretion.
Relatives of the deceased can attend an inquest and are able to ask the witnesses questions. However, they are only able to ask questions relating to the medical cause and circumstances of the death.
It is also possible for a relative of the deceased to be represented by a lawyer. This may be particularly important if the death was the result of a road accident, an accident at work or in other circumstances where a compensation claim might be made. Legal aid is not available for legal representation during an inquest.