Trying to come to terms with the sudden loss of a loved one can be a deeply distressing experience, especially when the exact circumstances of their death are unknown or unclear.
This tragic time can feel even more stressful if you need to navigate your way through an inquest as a family or individual, which for many can prove very difficult emotionally.
An inquest is usually held when:
- A person dies in a sudden, violent or unnatural way
- A person dies having been in contact with state bodies (NHS, police, prison service)
- A private organisation is involved in the death
- The cause of death is unknown after a post mortem examination
Inquests provide ‘properly interested persons’ – such as the deceased’s parents, children, spouse or partner – with the opportunity to pose questions to witnesses during a formal evidence-giving process.
In theory, inquests are supposed to be fully accessible to the deceased’s family and non-adversarial, with everyone working together co-operatively to reach the best resolution.
Sadly, in practice, this is not always the case.
In many circumstances, particularly inquests involving public institutions such as the police, NHS, or prison service, legal representation is the best way to ensure you discover all the facts.
Such inquests can be lengthy, detailed and complex, and you will benefit from having the support of legal experts to ascertain whether more could have been done to prevent your loved one’s death.
Inquests involving state can question if deceased’s ‘right to life’ was breached
In our work at Hudgell Solicitors, we are increasingly supporting families who believe their loved ones have died at the hands of the state or where the state has failed to take steps to protect their life. We are instructed to ensure public bodies are fully held to account and questioned at inquests.
Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights permits a person to have the “right to life” – a liberty which can often be found to have been breached upon death.
Contentious cases such as this can be heard by both a Coroner and a jury, with the public organisations involved usually represented by a team of capable lawyers.
Many families head into such hearings unaware that they are entitled to legal representation, or do so having been wrongly advised it would not be necessary.
Families finding themselves in such a position can be left further frustrated, angered and denied of justice as they feel they have not had a fair and equal chance of representation.
What can a lawyer do at an inquest?
Due to the complex and sensitive nature of the evidence which is provided at an inquest, a lawyer may be appropriate to oversee the unfamiliar process.
An experienced lawyer can:
Help secure vital evidence for an inquest: Securing evidence which may have been overlooked could help to uncover the truth about the circumstances in which someone died.
Ask questions of witnesses: A lawyer can ask questions of any relevant witnesses involved in the events surrounding the death – to test their evidence and gain a better understand about what went on in the build up to the tragedy. This could include police officers, paramedics, medical and forensic experts, the pathologist who carried out the post mortem or any witnesses at the scene.
Address matters of law: As well as asking questions on behalf of the deceased’s family, a lawyer can also address the Coroner on matters concerning the law. They can also make submissions to a Coroner as to other considerations, such as where there may be a risk of other deaths occurring in similar circumstances, highlighting need for change.
Arrange for a second post mortem: An independent investigation can often be carried out if your lawyer makes an application.
Deal with the media: It is not uncommon for the Press to attend an inquest, as the public hearing may contain details which are of significant interest. The deceased’s family do not have to talk to the media if they don’t want to, but should they want to give their thoughts, a lawyer can do so on their behalf via an interview or pre-prepared statement.
Pursue a civil claim: If there is the potential for a civil claim to arise because of an avoidable death, a lawyer will be able to advise on how to pursue a case of this nature.
Help gain access to funding: Depending on the circumstances of the death, it may be possible to get Legal Aid or have your inquest representation funded.
What happens at the end of an inquest?
An inquest is a fact-finding exercise which cannot apportion blame or determine liability. Unlike criminal or civil proceedings, the process will not result in a sentence or punishment being handed out to any party involved.
A coroner will give a verdict – now referred to as a conclusion – which are often described using the following legal phrases:
- Accidental death or misadventure
- Drugs or alcohol
- Industrial disease
- Natural causes
- Unlawful killing
- An ‘Open’ or ‘Narrative’ verdict/conclusion – when no other verdicts apply.
The final verdict may conclude that the actions of a person contributed towards the death.
The coroner may also criticise an institution and highlight how they should have dealt with the situation differently, such as a police force or medical establishment.
Should the deceased’s family want a completely new inquest to be held, it is possible to have a Coroner’s decision overturned in exceptional circumstances.
For this to happen, the initial inquest proceedings would need to be challenged by judicial review by a lawyer. They would then need to ask the Attorney General to refer the matter to the High Court to order a new inquest.
How we can help to get the justice you deserve
Under the Coroners and Justice Act 2009, the deceased’s close family members (parents, children, a spouse or partner) are legally entitled to ask questions at an inquest.
Whether the deceased’s family choose to be represented by a lawyer at a hearing is a decision only they can make, but in our experience, some inquests are so complex that it’s almost impossible to proceed without legal representation.
We regularly seek justice for families whose loved ones have died in tragic or unexplained circumstances.
This includes deaths in police custody, in prison, at a mental health facility, deaths in the workplace, those which have occurred because of health and safety failings and deaths where there are concerns over medical care.
If you, or someone you know, has been affected in this way it is important to speak to a lawyer as soon as possible.
Never wait until the end of an inquest to seek legal advice. There are various strict time limits which apply to the legal process and the possibility of bringing a claim. In most cases, the faster you act, the more chance you have of achieving a successful outcome.