Inquest Proceure

The requirement for a Coroner to sit with a jury

The Coroner must summon a jury if before he or she proceeds to hold an inquest, or during the course of an inquest begun without a jury, it appears that there is reason to suspect that:

  • The death occurred in prison or in such a place or in such circumstances as to require an inquest under any other Act.
  • The death occurred while the deceased was in police custody, or resulted from an injury caused by a police officer in the purported execution of his or her duty.
  • The death was caused by an accident, poisoning or disease, notice of which is required to be given under any Act to a government department, any inspector or other officer of a government department or to an inspector appointed under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974. The kind of cases in which there is a duty to report a death to a Government minister (and therefore call for a jury) includes deaths on railways, accidents on board British ships or involving civil or military aircrafts.
  • The death occurred in circumstances the continuance or possible recurrence of which is prejudicial to the health or safety of the public or any section of the public. The Coroner will generally find this section satisfied where there is some evidence that the deceased's death was not a ‘one-off’ incident, but occurred because of system failures, inadequate safety measures or where steps could be taken to avoid similar fatalities in the future. For example, in relation to the death of the late Diana Princess of Wales, the court held that the coroner must sit with a jury as that there was a risk of recurrence of the type of event which occurred, which put other celebrities (who might be pursued by members of the paparazzi) and bystanders at risk of injury. If steps have been taken since the death to alleviate the risk of recurrence however the Coroner will not be bound to summons a jury.

The right to participate at an inquest

The Coroner has a duty to notify - amongst others - the spouse, near relative or personal representative of the deceased (where their names and addresses are known to him or her) and any other interested persons who asks to be notified of the time and place of the inquest.

Interested persons who have a right to attend the inquest include a parent, child, spouse, personal representative or partner of the deceased. A ‘partner’ for these purposes means one of two persons (whether of the same or different sexes) who live as partners in an enduring relationship. The Coroner also has discretion to permit other people to participate as interested persons and will often permit other close family members to participate. Where close personal ties existed between the deceased and the bereaved, such as to constitute a family relationship for the purpose of Article 8 of the Convention (which establishes a right to private and family life) it is arguable that the coroners’ discretion should be exercised to ensure that the right to family life is respected by recognizing as interested persons other relatives who had a sufficiently close relationship to the deceased. Interested persons who have a right to attend the inquest also have a right to ask appropriate questions and to make submissions on law.

Funding and representation at the inquest

There is limited public funding available for preparatory work, which a lawyer may have to carry out to properly prepare for the inquest. There is also limited provision for public funding through the Lord Chancellor’s Department, for legal representation at the inquest. The availability of this funding is restricted to cases that fulfill the ‘exceptional cases’ criteria set out in the Funding Code that accompanies the Access to Justice Act 2000.

The Lord Chancellor’s Department has issued Guidance on Applications for Exceptional Funding. This guidance states that the applicant must be within the financial eligibility levels for public funding and must satisfy the Lord Chancellor that there is a significant wider public interest in having legal representation at the inquest, the client is a member of the deceased’s immediate family and the circumstances of the death appear to be such that publicly funded representation is necessary to assist the Coroner to investigate the case effectively and establish the facts.

The Legal Services Commission (LSC) may ask the Secretary of State to waive the eligibility limit to enable the funding of legal representation at an inquest into the death of a member of the immediate family of the client. In considering whether to make such a request, the LSC will consider in particular whether Article 2 of the Convention is engaged. If there is evidence of state responsibility in respect of a death, immediate family members may be granted public funding for advocacy at the inquest into his or her death, even if they would otherwise fall outside the eligibility limits for such funding. Whether it is granted in these circumstances will be dependent upon the facts of each individual case.

If civil proceedings follow the inquest the costs associated with the inquest may be recoverable so long as they were incidental to the civil case. Thus, if liability has been admitted before the inquest or if part of the work carried out for the inquest was to assist the coroner, rather than assist with the civil proceedings, the costs may not be recoverable, wholly or in part.

Disclosure by the Coroner

There is no right for an interested person to receive all documents, including witness statements, which the Coroner has in his or her possession. However, the Coroner must supply interested persons with a copy of the post mortem report and any documents or notes put in evidence at the inquest. This obligation does not necessarily mean that the documents will be disclosed before the inquest, but as a matter of good practice the Coroner should be prepared to supply a copy of these documents in advance.

If a person dies in prison, police custody or whilst detained under the Mental Health Act the Coroner should as a matter of good practice consider any application for advance disclosure very carefully, and agree to a request for disclosure if possible.

Although there is no right to the disclosure of witness statements and other documents before the inquest, interested persons will often require these to properly prepare for the inquest. In these circumstances the courts have decided that the Coroner must show that he or she has exercised fairly his or her discretion whether to release such documents: R v HM Coroner for District of Avon ex parte Bentley.

If the Coroner refuses to disclose documents, which had they been available to an interested person might have shifted the focus to a critical area of investigation, there may be a remedy to a higher court by way of judicial review. If the death occurred in circumstances giving rise to a suggested violation of Article 2 of the ECHR (see below), there are likely to be strong grounds for asking the Coroner to disclose documents to ensure that there is an adequate and sufficient investigation and to ensure that interested persons are able to participate in the inquest process.

If the Coroner refuses to disclose statements and other documents, which he or she has received from other sources, an application may be made to the holder of those documents directly for disclosure before the inquest. For example, an application for medical records may be made to the relevant healthcare trust. If the death occurred in police or prison custody, prison and custody records should be obtained and as a matter of good practice where the death occurred in custody, documents applied for should be provided before the inquest. The right to disclosure of information about the deceased is contained in the Data Protection Act 1998.


Evidence at the inquest

The Coroner has the right to summon witnesses to attend the inquest and has a wide discretion about who should be required to give evidence. Any interested person is entitled to make representations if it is considered that vital witnesses have not been called and the Coroner should consider these requests carefully and give reasons for his or her decision if the application is refused.

If the Coroner wants to admit a witness statement, rather than call a witness, he or she can do so only if the evidence is unlikely to be disputed and there is no objection from an interested party. If the Coroner intends to read a witness statement from a witness whom he or she does not intend to call, an interested party has the right to object to this. Before introducing documentary evidence, the Coroner should inform interested persons at the inquest that they are entitled to see a copy of the documentary evidence and have a right to object to the admission of it. The only exception is if the maker of the document is unable to give oral evidence within a reasonable period. The inconvenience of adjourning an inquest in order to call a witness (where there is an objection to their statement being read) is not a sufficient reason for refusing to call the witness.

The family of an individual who has died in suspicious circumstances should be aware that witnesses who may be implicated in the death are not required to give evidence that may incriminate them in criminal proceedings. If a witness in giving evidence is likely to incriminate him or herself in criminal proceedings, the Coroner should warn the witness that he or she may refuse to answer such a question. If this happens, interested parties still have the right to ask the witness questions, but the witness will be informed that he or she may choose not to answer the question.

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