Here we provide you with some simple information and suggestions to help get you through this difficult time.
What is an inquest?
An inquest is a public hearing held by a Coroner following a death. Inquests take place where the cause of death is not clear, where the death is a result of an accident at work/ industrial disease, or where there are questions about medical treatment received by the deceased.
Reporting a death
A doctor or the police usually report a death to the Coroner, but the deceased’s loved ones can approach the Coroner’s officer directly if they feel that a death should be reported. Whenever a death is referred to the Coroner, the Registrar of Births, Deaths and Marriages, cannot issue a final death certificate. The Registrar must wait until the Coroner has finished any enquiries before registering the death. It is always best to contact the Coroner’s Office before making funeral arrangements as this process may take time.
Before the inquest, a post mortem will usually be done to assist the Coroner in determining the cause of death. A pathologist will carry out the post mortem and submit a written report on their findings to the Coroner. Tests for toxins and other relevant tests may also be undertaken..
Medical Solicitors can assist in the preparation for an inquest and at the inquest itself. For many families, the possibility of an inquest can be intimidating, especially when the other people involved in the inquest (such as doctors and nurses) are likely to have legal representation.
We can obtain and examine the medical records before the inquest; this helps us to identify and ask relevant questions of the witnesses. In cases that concern issues of medical care, we can put questions at the inquest to those responsible for the care provided, to try and get answers for the deceased’s loved ones.
For more information about what we can do for you, funding, conditional fee agreements and more click here.
It usually takes 3-4 months before the Coroner can hold the inquest. However, it could be longer in complicated cases. Some Coroners have fast track procedures for simple cases.
The purpose of the inquest is to answer four questions:
- Who has died?
- When they died?
- Where they died?
- How they died?
At the inquest, the Coroner will hear evidence from the family of the deceased, and from the doctors and nurses, or midwives, involved in the deceased’s treatment, in medical cases. The Healthcare Trust responsible for the hospital where the death occurred will usually be represented by a lawyer if there is a possibility of criticism of the hospital. The opportunity to ask questions of the witnesses and make submissions to the Coroner is given to the family of the deceased, or their legal representative. At the end of the inquest, the Coroner will give answers to the four questions above and a ‘verdict’.
Most inquests are held without a jury. There are specific reasons when a jury will be called, for example if the case is very complex, or if the deceased has died in custody, or while detained under the Mental Health Act. It is the jury, and not the Coroner, which makes the final decision and returns the verdict, in every inquest held with a jury.
Preparation before the inquest
- Do you know how to get to the Coroner’s Court? Is there parking available if you are coming by car? Do you know for how long you will be in the Court and for how long your parking ticket will be valid?
- Ask the Coroner’s office if you can pop in to see the Coroner’s Court before the inquest. Find out where you will be sitting and where. If you have to give evidence as a witness, you will have to stand. Will water be provided, or can you bring your own water bottles?
- Find out if there is a family room that you can use throughout the day of the inquest. Is there a drinks machine? Do you need change for the machine? Is there somewhere you can smoke?
- Where is the nearest café to the Coroner’s Court? If it is a full day inquest is there a park nearby where you can go and stretch your legs and walk off any tension you may be feeling?
- Do you have a good friend who is not emotionally involved with the inquest that can come and look after you during the inquest hearing?
- Learn some simple relaxation exercises to help you during the inquest. It is important to practice these exercises and relaxation techniques before the inquest so that you are confident doing them. The simplest relaxation exercises consist of noticing your breathing and trying to breathe out for a longer period than you breathe in.
- If you have a solicitor or barrister representing you at the inquest, have you spoken to them to ensure that they know all the questions you wish to raise during the inquest?
- Are you sure you know what time the inquest starts and what time you and your family should be at the Coroner’s Court?
- Make sure you discuss with your solicitor whether or not a jury will be present during the inquest.
On the day of the inquest
- Take tissues with you to the inquest and make sure that you can get to them easily. Boiled sweets or mints are often helpful as they help you feel more relaxed and give you something else upon which to focus.
- Agree with your solicitor or barrister, what time you will meet them at the court as they may want to speak to you and your family before the inquest starts.
If you are asked to give evidence as a witness
- There is a court ‘usher’ who helps the Coroner with various tasks, such as showing people in and out of the Coroner’s court. The usher will take you to the witness box and will ask you if you wish to give evidence on oath swearing on the Bible, another Holy Book, or if you wish to affirm that you will tell the truth. If you prefer to swear on a Holy Book, you will be asked to hold it in your right hand while you read the words from a card in front of you. If you affirm, you will read from a different card.
- You can take tissues to the witness box with you, and can use them, so don’t be afraid to do so.
- The Coroner will guide you in how to give your evidence. When you have finished, the Coroner may ask some questions. Your solicitor, or barrister and other solicitors, or barristers, may also ask you questions. Your answers should always be directed to the Coroner and not the person who is asking the question.
- Try and speak loudly and clearly so that everyone can hear you. The inquest is taped, so if you speak too quietly, the microphones will not be able to pick up your voice.
- Ask the Coroner if you can give your evidence sitting down if you feel faint, dizzy, or have a condition which makes it difficult for you to stand up for a long time.
- If you become distressed and find it difficult to talk, ask the Coroner if you can take a break before continuing with your evidence. You may have to sit near the witness box and not talk to anyone during this break as you will still be on oath.
- Do not become angry with the questioner, no matter what the questions are. Answer politely and simply. If you feel that the question is inappropriate, or if you don’t understand it, tell the Coroner how you feel and the Coroner may then ask the questioner to explain why they are asking the question and how they believe it will benefit the inquest. The Coroner can disallow the question.
- The maximum time you would be in the witness box is probably an hour, and it is likely to be much shorter than this.
Listening to evidence
- Listening to evidence can be very distressing. If you feel you need to go out because you feel angry or upset, don’t worry, quietly make your way out of the Court. If there is a family room go there and have a drink. Try to think about something entirely different. When you feel more collected, come back into the Court.
- The pathologist is the doctor who examines dead bodies and tries to determine the cause of death; the Coroner may ask if you wish to leave the Court while he/she is giving their evidence. You may not want to hear what the pathologist has to say or see any of the photographs. This is your choice. If you wish to leave, ask someone to tell you when the pathologist has finished giving evidence so that you can come back into Court.
- No matter what anyone says, do not get angry or make a loud comment and do not call anyone liar. Try not to be seen as influencing the jury, if there is on, by reacting to evidence given by witnesses. The Coroner may see this as inappropriate and ask you to leave the Court.
- Try and stay as calm as you can throughout the inquest. If you feel you are unable to control your emotions, go take a walk to calm down.
- Take a notebook and try to make notes of important points that you wish to remember.
When it’s all finished
- When the Coroner and the jury, if there is one, reach their verdict you are bound to feel a range of emotions. Talk to your solicitor or barrister, about what happens next.
- If there are journalists present in the Coroner’s Court but you don’t want to talk to them, tell your solicitor, and they will advise you on what to do.
- If there is a lot of press interest in your case, it may be an idea to plan a short break, or even a holiday, straight after the inquest where the press cannot reach you.
- You may feel exhausted after the inquest has finished. Make sure you know how you are getting home and, if you are driving, are safe to do so.
- When you get home, it is very easy to re-live every moment of the inquest but try and do something to relax. Try and switch off from what has been a stressful day. Try not to think too much about what has happened; it will take time for everything to sink in.
- Think about arranging for someone to be there with you if you live alone.
- It might be an idea to think about counselling if you have not done so already.
Inquests in Scotland
In Scotland, the investigation of deaths is slightly different. The inquiries are the responsibility of the Procurator Fiscal’s office. They come under two categories.
- SUSPICIOUS AND UNEXPLAINED DEATHS
The Procurator Fiscal enquires into all sudden deaths that happen in their jurisdiction. Their aim is to discover whether any criminal act has contributed, or caused the death, or find out whether the death has arisen from hazardous circumstances where action may prevent future deaths or injuries. Enquiries into circumstances that may suggest suicide are also taken on by the Procurators Fiscal.
Certain deaths in medicinal care are investigated, as are any deaths that may be related to a defect in a medicinal product. The Procurator Fiscal also investigates any death occurring in legal custody, whether in a police station or prison. Sudden deaths usually come to the attention of the Procurator Fiscal through a report from a doctor, the local registrar of births, deaths and marriages, or the police.
A Fatal Accident Inquiry (FAI) is a statutory public inquiry held in the Sheriff Court at the instance of the Procurator Fiscal. Where the death was caused by accident in the course of employment or where the death occurred in legal custody, a FAI must take place. Crown counsel on behalf of the Lord Advocate may order a fatal accident inquiry if it is considered to be in the public interest, for any death that is suspicious, sudden, unexplained, or which has occurred in circumstances giving rise to serious public concern.
About Medical Solicitors
Our friendly team of specialist lawyers at Medical Solicitors have the expertise to help you succeed in a medical negligence claim for compensation if you have suffered from poor gynaecology care.
Compensation can be claimed where there has been inappropriate advice given concerning treatment options and the risks and benefits of the various options, where there have been excessive delays in providing you with treatment, or where there has been substandard surgical care that amounts to actual Medical Negligence.
Do contact our friendly team of specialist lawyers at Medical Solicitors. We conduct most of our Clinical and Medical Negligence claims under ‘No Win, No Fee’ agreements, also known as Conditional Fee Agreements. So, you do not have to worry about how you are going to afford to bring a compensation claim for failed sterilisation and vasectomy. You have nothing to lose in speaking to us.
CRUSE Bereavement Care
0844 477 9400 (National Helpline)
CRUSE is a leading charity specialising in bereavement. Cruse has a wide range of leaflets and books available. Face-to-face and group support is delivered by trained bereavement support volunteers across the UK.
Childhood Bereavement UK
They provide confidential support, information and guidance to families and professionals. Their professionally trained bereavement support workers are available to take calls 9am-5pm Monday-Friday. Tel: 0800 02 888 40
The Child Bereavement Network
Type your postcode or nearest town into the search box to find details of your local organisations that support bereaved children, whatever the cause of death. Families can refer themselves directly to these free services, and other children’s professionals (teachers, GPs etc) can get information, guidance and support too.
Some work with children on their own, others provide opportunities for them to meet others who have been bereaved.
Inquests about the death of a child
Leaflets produced by The Compassionate Friends for after a child has died.
Information about what to do after a death
Information produced by the Home Office