When Are Juries Used For Inquests And What Do They Do?
Most people have an idea about what a jury in a criminal case is for. Much of this is from depictions in popular media; most of us can bring to mind a court room drama where we are invited into jury deliberations or seen a foreman speak up. Statistically we are likely to know at least one person who has sat on a crown court jury or perhaps done so ourselves. These conceptions of the jury may not be completely accurate, but they are definitely there in the background to our lives. We know that juries play an important role in determining whether someone is found guilty or not guilty.
In contrast to this, there are inquest juries. The role of a jury in an inquest can be pivotal, but there is very little common understanding of the procedure for inquests. Inquests are processes that most people do not want to think about and only come across in tragic circumstances.
What is the role of the jury?
An inquest jury is made up of between 7 and 11 people randomly selected from the general public. The reasons to refuse jury service are quite limited and most people between the ages of 18 to 65 will be eligible to be summoned to take part in a jury.
Unlike in a criminal trial, the jury has a proactive role in inquests. They are able to ask questions of witnesses. The findings of an inquest are not simply a yes/no question, but instead go to the heart of who, when, where and how the person has died. If it is arguable that the State may bear some responsibility for the death then there may be an “Article 2” inquest. The jury in an Article 2 inquest will also be asked to draw conclusions as to the circumstances in which the person died.
Inquest findings can be critical of those involved in a death, including state bodies. They can include narrative verdicts and find that parties have acted with neglect. Therefore, the role of jury is very important. They will be given directions by the coroner once the evidence is heard, but the coroner should allow juries to decide on matters which, if properly directed, they should have the information to decide.
Often families of those who have died feel that a jury will be more understanding of the circumstances of a death and more curious about what led to it. There is sometimes a concern that coroners may develop a degree of professional distance and may become somewhat desensitised which can lead to less thoughtful questioning and findings. Moreover, the jury system is meant to mitigate individual biases by using group decision making.
As with criminal cases, an inquest jury will first try and reach a unanimous decision, one where each juror is in agreement. If this cannot be reached, the coroner has a discretion to allow a majority decision, where one or two of the jurors are in disagreement. This should only be allowed if they are satisfied that the jury has spent a reasonable time deliberating.
When are juries involved in inquests?
Only a small number of inquests involve a jury; in 2021, 428 inquests were held with juries, equivalent to 1% of inquests held last year.
A jury is required by law in certain circumstances, as per the Coroners and Justice Act 2009, section 7(2), where the coroner has reasons to suspect that:
- A death has occurred state custody and the death is violent or unnatural;
- A death has occurred in state custody and the cause of death is unknown;
- A death has resulted from the act or omission of a police force;
- A death was caused by a notifiable accident, poisoning or disease.
The decision of whether a jury is required is one that the coroner will ultimately make. The threshold is low, as the decision about whether a jury should be used is normally made early on in proceedings. Therefore, if there is some reason to suggest that one of the above applies, then a jury will likely be used. It is an important issue for the coroner to consider and one which will often be subject to argument from the parties to inquest, especially the family. Where the coroner is found to be wrong in deciding not to summon a jury, the High Court may order fresh inquest.
There are also circumstances where a coroner may call a jury. They have a broad discretion to summon a jury under Coroners and Justice Act 2009, section 7(3), where the circumstances above to does not apply, but where the coroner thinks there is ‘a sufficient reason for doing so’. A relevant consideration will be the wishes of the family of the deceased. Other considerations may be whether there is a public interest in having a coroner or senior judge hear the inquest, who can give more detailed reasoning than a jury could provide or where there is a large volume of documentary evidence.
When is a jury not required?
Sometimes the coroner will suspend an inquest while criminal proceedings take place. This will often happen where someone is being prosecuted for unlawful killing, such as murder or manslaughter. In these circumstances, when an inquest is resumed, a jury is not required, even when the death occurred in state custody or another circumstance where one would normally be called.
This can be confusing or upsetting for families, who want to have the full scrutiny that a jury can provide. In criminal proceedings, there may have already been a trial and jury verdict, but this may not be the case if the defendant plead guilty to criminal charges.
A coroner should still consider the issue carefully and take into account relevant considerations, including the family’s wishes. A jury may still be used in these circumstances.
If you are involved in an inquest, what should you do?
If a loved one has died and you have been informed that an inquest will take place, it is important to try and get legal advice as soon as possible. If it is an Article 2 inquest there is legal aid available even if you are not usually financially eligible for legal aid.