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 determine 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 (an examination of a body 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 do not try to establish whether anyone was responsible for a person’s death. Evidence is given by witnesses but there is no prosecution or defence.
When an inquest is held, the coroner must inform the deceased person's partner, nearest relative and representative (if they are different).
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 may only ask questions through a lawyer)
any person appointed by a government department
The coroner will decide who is given proper interest status.
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 are only able to ask questions relating to the medical cause and circumstances of the death.
It is 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 is not usually available for legal representation during an inquest.