What is an Inquest?
An inquest is an investigation to establish who the person was, and where, when and how they died. The procedure is overseen by a Coroner in the public interest. The Coroner is either a solicitor or barrister and/or is a qualified medical practitioner with at least five years’ experience.
Inquests happen due to the following circumstances:
- Where there is reasonable suspicion that someone has died a violent or unnatural death.
- Where someone has died a sudden death and the cause is unknown.
- Where someone has died in prison or in any place or circumstance where there is a legal requirement.
An inquest is not a trial and it is not the job of the coroner to decide any question of criminal or civil liability, or to allocate guilt and point blame. However, the nature of the proceedings is such that our criminal defence advocates are best placed to deal with such matters. Once the Coroner has completed their investigation into the death, they will then decide if an inquest is to be held.
At the end of the inquest the Coroner will make a statement about the cause of the death so it can be formally registered. For example, these may be described as being:
- An accident or misadventure
- Alcohol or drug related
- Industrial disease
- Lawful killing
- Unlawful killing
- Due to natural causes
- Road traffic collision
- Open (a death that’s suspicious but where it isn’t possible to confirm the exact cause)
Article 2 Inquests
In some situations article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which is also referred to as the right to life, means that the state has a duty to carry out an effective investigation into a death. Article 2 says that the state must not take someone’s life, except in very limited circumstances, and it forces a duty on the state to protect life. That is why there must be a proper and thorough investigation of how someone died. Examples of article 2 inquests include where individuals died as a result of the use of lethal force by police officers or while under the care or protection of the state, such as prisoners or other people known to authorities to be at real and immediate risk of harm.
If the Coroner is informed that someone has been charged with an offence directly linked to the deceased, the inquest will be adjourned and not reopened until after the criminal proceedings have ended. During the criminal investigation, Coroners may request updates on the progress of a case and there should generally be no obstacle stopping the prosecutor providing an update. Coroners also commonly seek a legal explanation of the CPS charging decision made or question its basis.
Once the criminal proceedings have been finalised the Coroner has the discretion to resume an inquest. When the Coroner resumes the inquest, they must ensure that the outcome of the verdict is NOT inconsistent with the relevant criminal proceedings or other reasons the Coroner’s investigation had been originally adjourned. The Coroner is more likely to resume an inquest following criminal proceedings which have resulted in a conviction where Article 2 issues, in his/her opinion need to be further explored.
Unlawful killing conclusions
When considering an unlawful killing conclusion, the Coroner applies the criminal standard of proof (‘beyond reasonable doubt’). When the standard of proof to bring an unlawful killing conclusion cannot be met, Coroner’s will usually consider other conclusions of accident/misadventure, where the burden of proof is not as heavy.
Additionally, it does not follow that an inquest conclusion of unlawful killing will automatically result in criminal proceedings. This could be because the chief suspect has died, or is immune from prosecution. It is a matter for the Crown Prosecution service at that point.
Being a witness
The Coroner will choose the witnesses who will then give evidence. They will usually be asked to summarise events in their own words before they are asked 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 a policy
- Anyone whose actions the coroner believes may have contributed to the death accidentally or otherwise
- The chief officer of police
- Any person appointed by a government department
What to do if you are involved or summoned to an inquest
If you have been summoned to be a witness for an inquest or are involved in an inquest and feel that you need some advice or representation then call our teams of specialist criminal defence lawyers based in Leicester and Hinckley using the contact details below.
Contact our criminal defence solicitors
Leicester call us on 0116 254 8871.
Hinckley call us on 01455 639 900.