An inquest is a legal investigation to establish the circumstances surrounding a person’s death, including how, when and why the death occurred.
In some cases, an inquest will also try to establish the deceased person's identity.
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 (where a body is examined after death)
A coroner's court is a legal body that helps determine how, when and why a person died. Coroners are independent judicial officers who are usually lawyers or doctors with appropriate training in law.
Unlike criminal trials, inquests don't try to establish whether anyone was responsible for a person’s death. Evidence is given by witnesses but there's no prosecution or defence.
When an inquest is held, the coroner must inform the deceased person's next of kin or personal representative.
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.
After the inquest has been opened, it may 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 the case is particularly complex.
In some cases, the coroner may hold one or more additional hearings before an inquest begins, known as pre-inquest hearings or reviews. These allow the extent of the inquest to be considered.
During an inquest, witnesses chosen by the coroner will give evidence. The coroner usually asks the witness to summarise events in their own words before asking them questions to clarify any points.
Anyone who has a "proper interest" can also question a witness. 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 can only ask questions through a lawyer)
- any person appointed by a government department
The coroner will decide who is given proper interest status.
At the end of the inquest, the coroner or jury (if there is one, see below), will come to a conclusion. This will include a legal statement about who died, as well as where, when and how they died.
The coroner will make a statement about the cause of death so it can be formally registered. For example, the death may be described as being:
- an accident or misadventure
- alcohol or drug related
- an industrial disease
- a lawful killing
- an unlawful killing
- due to natural causes
- open (a death that's suspicious but where it isn't possible to confirm the exact cause)
- a road traffic collision
- a stillbirth
- a suicide
The coroner or jury may also make a brief "narrative" conclusion in which they'll set out the facts surrounding the death in more detail and explain the reasons for their decision.
When a jury is needed
Most inquests are carried out by the coroner alone. However, in some circumstances, the coroner will call a jury to decide the verdict.
For example, a jury will be required if the death occurred in prison or in police custody, or if 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're only able to ask questions relating to the medical cause and circumstances of the death.
It's 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. However, legal aid isn't usually available for legal representation during an inquest.