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Questions about cause of death – gaining answers from an inquest

Posted on 8th December 2016

Losing a loved one is a very difficult and traumatic. In some cases, where the cause of death is uncertain or unnatural, an inquest must be held.

What is an inquest?

An inquest, conducted by a coroner, in a coroner’s court, is described as an inquisitorial process and therefore it does not seek to attribute blame, nor consider issues of civil or criminal liability. The Coroner, or on occasions a jury, will only ask questions, to each witness, in order to establish who the deceased was; where and when they died; and also how and in what circumstances the deceased died.

The Coroner also has a duty to make reports to a person, organisation, local authority, or government department or agency, where the Coroner believes that action should be taken to prevent future deaths.

What is a coroner?

Coroners are judicial officers and they are appointed by the local authority, in which the Court lies. Coroners usually have a legal background and some are qualified medical doctors.

What is a coroner’s officer?

The Coroner’s Officer provides the interested parties, including members of the family of the deceased, with all the information about how the inquest will be conducted and what will happen on the day. The Coroner’s Officer liaises directly with the coroner and also with the legal representatives of the interested parties.

Why is an inquest held?

An inquest is held following a post mortem, when the cause of death is unknown. An inquest will also be held if the cause of death was violent or unnatural or, if a person was in state detention when they died.

What happens?

Prior to the inquest, the Coroner’s Officer will liaise with the Coroner, the interested parties and their legal representatives, so that all parties have all the information they require for the inquest and so that they know what will happen on the day.

A preliminary inquest review will sometimes take place prior to the inquest, so that the coroner can meet with the interested parties and their legal representatives in order to establish if there is any evidence which needs to be obtained and to confirm the focus of the inquest.

An inquest is a court hearing and involves the coroner, witnesses, solicitors, barristers and on occasions, a jury.

The witnesses called to give oral evidence will be questioned under oath by the Coroner so that all the relevant evidence can be obtained. The interested parties or their legal representatives are then invited to ask questions, to each witness, which assist the Coroner with the investigation. If there is a jury, they can also ask each witness questions. On some occasions, the written statements provided by each witness, will be read out in court.

An inquest can last for a couple of hours, a few days, or on some occasions, a number of weeks.

Once all the evidence has been heard, the Coroner or the Jury will retire to consider the evidence obtained during the inquest. A determination will then be made, which will confirm who the deceased was, when, where and how they died.

What findings can a coroner or jury make?

The conclusions available to the Coroner or the Jury are as follows:

  • Suicide
  • Natural causes
  • Industrial disease
  • Alcohol/drug related
  • Accident or misadventure
  • Lawful killing
  • Unlawful killing
  • Stillbirth
  • Road traffic collision

A coroner may also reach an open conclusion, where there is not enough evidence to determine the cause of death. A narrative conclusion can also be found, in which the Coroner will set out the circumstances of death in more detail, based on the evidence heard.

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