The impact of COVID-19 on inquests
What is an inquest and why is it held?
An inquest is held in order to determine how, when and where an individual has died. They are held by a coroner, who is a special type of judge appointed by a local authority to investigate certain deaths. Inquests can be held with or without a jury, depending on the circumstances of the death.
Inquests are quite different from other types of court hearings as they are not adversarial; there is no prosecution or defence, no claimants or defendants. It is a fact-finding inquiry where a coroner will decide on what evidence they wish to hear. The purpose of an inquest is to determine who died, when and how. It is not to hold anyone criminally responsible for it.
For more complex matters, the coroner may wish to hold one or more hearings prior to the main inquest hearing. This is known as a pre-inquest review hearing and it deals with procedural matters such as which documents to obtain, which witnesses to call and whether an expert is required.
Where the deceased died in custody, or the State may be in some other way implicated in the death, Article 2 of the Human Rights Act requires that a fuller inquest should be held, which also looks at the wider circumstances of the death. This is called an Article 2 inquest.
Impact of COVID-19 on inquest
Many inquests, in common with many other types of hearings, have had to be adjourned as a result of COVID-19, particularly where a jury is involved. The Chief Coroner of England and Wales issued guidance to coroners, stating inquests which were due to begin between 31 March and 28 August 2020 and involved a jury had to be adjourned. Pre-inquest reviews are being adjourned too, meaning further delays are being caused to more complex cases.
In law, inquests must take place in public, meaning coroners are not actually allowed to conduct hearings from their home or an office, they must be in a court for the hearing to take place.
The Chief Coroner has encouraged coroners to make every attempt, where possible, to enable the participation of those involved in the inquest such as the bereaved family. However, whilst hearings in areas such as criminal or family law slowly starting to take place through remote platforms, many coroners’ courts have not been able to adapt to this new method of hearing.
This has meant that many families will have to wait longer for answers as to how their loved one died, and whether their death could have been prevented. Many still have no idea how long will they have to wait.
What can be done to accommodate inquests?
There may be some solutions to help ease the backlog of pre-inquest review hearings and inquests.
Rule 23 hearings take place on the papers only. A coroner will read out evidence which has not been challenged and makes a finding on the cause of death. This is not a suitable solution for Article 2 inquests, inquests with a jury, inquests where the cause of death is controversial or where the family wish to take part. However this may be an option for undisputed inquests to help coroners ease the backlog of inquests.
Further, where a coroner is able to attend court safely whilst adhering to government guidance, pre-inquest review hearings should take place remotely. This would allow each interested party to be present either by phone or video link. Many workplaces have had to learn to work remotely during this pandemic and have been successful in doing so.
Alternatively, if the issue lies with coroners and court staff having to attend court, consideration should be given to allowing coroners to hold inquests outside of court. Given the exceptional circumstances we are in, this might provide a better and reasonable solution.
It is obvious that these are different and challenging times for all of us, including coroners. The adjournment of inquests is just one of many unfortunate outcomes of COVID-19, but as lockdown regulations ease, we hope these hearings will start running again, which will provide some comfort to bereaved families who have been waiting for answers.