What is an Inquest and When Might You Need One?
An Inquest is an investigation carried out by a Coroner into the circumstances surrounding a death. Where a death is potentially suspicious or unnatural, a Coroner will carry out an in-depth investigation, with the aim of finding out how, when and why the death came about.
An Inquest is not a Trial, and nobody can be found ‘guilty’ of having caused someone’s death. It may, however, conclude that people or organisations have contributed to the deceased’s death, either by acting or failing to act in a particular way.
Inquests will always be carried out when someone has died in state detention (e.g. in prison) and when the cause of death is unknown. An Inquest must also be carried out when the cause of death is ‘unnatural’, although this can cover situations where a natural death has been brought on by unnatural circumstances (e.g. where an otherwise healthy person dies of a heart attack after being admitted to hospital for a broken arm).
The type of Inquest conducted will depend on the nature of the case. Some Inquests require a Jury and can last several days, while others can be heard by the Coroner alone and can last hours. The Coroner will question witnesses, before members of the family (known as ‘interested persons’) are given the opportunity to ask further questions.
At the end of an Inquest, the Coroner will produce a ‘conclusion’, which can either be ‘short-form’ or a ‘narrative’ conclusion. A short-form conclusion will set out the cause of death, without further comment. A narrative conclusion will be longer, and explain the events or circumstances which led to the death. The conclusion can then be relied on as part of any civil claim, e.g: a fatal accident claim arising from the death.
Where the investigation has uncovered areas of concern or is likely to put others at risk of death, a Coroner can also write a report to the authority, or institution with the power to correct the failure.
For example, if it were discovered that a prison didn’t have any fire escapes, and a prisoner had died during a fire in the prison, the Coroner would write to the organisation in charge of the prison to express their concern. The person or organisation to whom the report has been sent must then respond within 56 days, setting out what they plan on doing to ensure that the failure won’t be repeated.
Can I Get Legal Aid?
Publicly funded legal services, or Legal Aid, isn’t generally available for bereaved families during the Inquest. The UK government has argued that as the proceedings are relatively informal, it isn’t necessary for families to bring legal representatives. This has been heavily criticised, as government bodies and representatives generally bring with them Solicitors and Barristers, who can question witnesses and can shape the nature of the investigation. Critics also note that government policies and practices can be quite complicated, and can require specialist knowledge to understand.
Legal Aid is available to families in some cases, however. Where the case raises concerns that the government has breached its duty to protect its citizens’ right to life (Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights), funding will be granted on an exceptional basis. These cases include those where an individual has died following detention by the government in prison, a police station, immigration detention or in a psychiatric mental health unit. This may also include instances where someone has died following the use of force by a government agent, such as a policeman.
Legal Aid funding is also granted to families where there is a ‘public interest’ in investigating the death, for example after a terrorist attack.
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