An inquest’s essential purpose is answer the following questions: who was the deceased? When did they die? Where did they die? And by what means did they die? In certain circumstances the last of these four questions should be read as if asking: by what means and in what circumstances did the person die?
Engaging with an inquest can be confusing for a person not familiar with these proceedings, especially since doing so will, by definition, occur after a death. However, it is often a mistake to hold back from fully engaging with the inquest process.
Hickman & Rose are inquest experts. The firm has acted in some of the most significant inquests of the past twenty years. Our lawyers have particular expertise in acting in ‘Article 2’ inquests where the State may be implicated in the death.
What is an inquest?
An inquest’s essential purpose is answer the following questions: who was the deceased? When did they die? Where did they die? And by what means did they die? In certain circumstances the last of these four questions should be read as if asking: by what means and in what circumstances did the person die? (See the section “Deaths in Custody” below for more details on this).
Not all deaths are referred to a coroner and therefore not all deaths lead to an inquest. Under section 1 of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009 a coroner will begin an investigation into a person’s death if the coroner has reason to suspect at least one of the following:
- The deceased died a violent or unnatural death
- The cause of death is unknown
- The deceased died while in custody or otherwise in state detention.
While there are various different ways in which death can be made subject to an inquest, the most common way is that the coroner, who is informed of relevant deaths in his or her district, will decide to open the inquest process.
How does an inquest proceed?
An inquest’s form can vary significantly case-by-case. Some cases may involve the coroner gathering then considering information relating to the death, after which he or she will conclude the inquest process. Alternatively, an inquest may involve the coroner gathering information before holding a detailed hearing in relation to the death.
The length of any inquest can also vary considerably depending on a number of factors. Some inquest hearings can last just minutes. Others last weeks or even months.
Sometimes an inquest can be heard by a coroner sitting alone. However, there are certain circumstances in which a coroner must sit with a jury. Alternatively a coroner may choose to sit with a jury if he or she considers there is sufficient reason to do so.
It is an important legal principle that all inquest hearings are held in public. Any member of the public (as well as journalists) has the right to attend.
What happens at an inquest hearing?
At an inquest hearing, the coroner will ask questions of the witnesses, and the legal representatives of any Interested Persons may also ask questions. An Interested Person who is not legally represented may also ask questions. If a jury is hearing the evidence they can also ask questions of the witnesses.
Although it is for the Coroner to decide which witnesses to call (and the order in which to call them to give evidence), an Interested Person can make representations to the coroner for a specific witness to give evidence.
Either the Coroner or jury will need to reach ‘conclusions’ (formerly known as ‘verdicts’) aft the conclusion of the evidence. What conclusions can potentially be left will very much depend on the circumstances of the case, but may include short form conclusions such as ‘suicide’ or ‘unlawful killing’, and/or a ‘narrative’ conclusion.
A Coroner also has the power to make Prevention of Future Death reports.
Who can be an Interested Person?
An ‘Interested Person’ is a person or organisation entitled to be involved in an inquest. People and organisations with the right to be an Interested Person will always include the following:
- The family of person who has died.
- A personal representative of the deceased.
- A beneficiary under a life insurance policy.
- Any person (or organisation) who may, by their act or omission, have caused or contributed to the death.
The Coroner can also designate any person he or she thinks has sufficient interest in the death to be an Interested Person. Interested Persons have the right to appoint legal representatives to act on their behalf.
It may be that in addition to a coroner’s investigation, there are other parallel investigations into the same death. These are usually carried out by other state agencies such as the police or the Health and Safety Executive.
In this situation the coroner can decide to postpone the inquest process until the other investigations have concluded. However this is by no means a hard and fast rule. A lot depends on the circumstances of the death.
Deaths in Custody
Inquests always take place when a death occurs in state custody.
In situations where there is a suggestion that the State may be responsible in some way for the death then the inquest process is obliged to attempt to answer the wider question: by what means and in what circumstances did the person die? This is in order to comply with the investigative duty created by Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).
Examples of when the State may be held responsible for a death include if there are concerns about the care provided to an individual prior to them apparently taking their own life whilst in the care of the state, or a police officer shooting dead a member of the public.
Public Inquiries in place of an inquest
Sometimes there is evidence which may be relevant to an inquest, but is considered subject to ‘Public Interest Immunity’ which means it should be withheld on the grounds that disclosure would be against the public or national interest.
If it is concluded that a coroner cannot carry out a proper investigation without considering this evidence, the Lord Chancellor may be asked to convert the inquest into a Public Inquiry so that all relevant evidence can be heard.
A Public Inquiry may also explore mass fatalities, in a way which may remove the need for further inquests to take place. The Grenfell Tower Inquiry is for example exploring the deaths of the 71 people who died as a result of the Grenfell Tower fire on 14 June 2017, together with the death of Pily Burton, who subsequently died and is considered the 72nd victim.
Hickman & Rose are inquest law experts. As well as providing full legal representation at an inquest, the firm is able to draw on extensive experience of acting in multiple inquests over many years to provide bespoke advice to families and other potential Interested Persons.
Our experienced inquest team has acted in many different types of inquests, including those relating to deaths following restraint in police custody, potential failures in relation to care provided for mental ill health prior to death, death in the workplace, self-inflicted deaths in state custody, police shootings, and domestic homicides where there were potential failures of state agents.
High profile inquests in which the firm has acted or currently acts include: Sean Rigg, Prince Fosu, Thomas Orchard, Emiliano Sala and, Dalian Atkinson.
We also represented the mother of Azelle Rodney, who was shot dead in April 2005 by the Metropolitan Police, in the first inquest to be converted into a Public Inquiry. We currently act for a number of the bereaved families in the Grenfell Tower Inquiry.
We often advise on matters such as whether an inquest should be held; the type of inquest which should be held; and whether an individual or organisation may be able to apply to become an Interested Person. We also provide specialist advice on disclosure related issues, potential inquest conclusions, and Prevention of Future Death reports.