One of the first things explained to bereaved families facing the ordeal of an inquest into the circumstances of a loved one’s death is that the purpose of the hearing is not to apportion guilt or to attribute blame.
Families and friends are made aware that a Coroner’s role is simply to establish who the dead person was and how, when and where they died.
The hearing is held to provide the details needed for their death to be registered, and those giving evidence are not on any form of trial.
It is not therefore not for a Coroner to determine, or appear to determine, any question of criminal or civil liability.
It is something we know makes many families question the worth and significance of the inquest process, as they feel it is often nothing more than a box ticking exercise confirming the facts that everybody already knows.
However, as lawyers who support many families at inquests, and subsequently in civil cases thereafter when pursuing damages, we know this is not the case.
Inquests are playing an ever-increasingly important role in ensuring justice is served for those who lose their lives and ensuring lessons are learned to better protect the public in the future.
It is those two aspects of inquest hearings that has led to our specialists at Hudgell Solicitors being increasingly called upon by families preparing to go through the inquest process, particularly when deaths have involved some recent contact with state bodies such as the prison service, the police, immigration officials or the NHS.
Evidence at inquests can play key role in subsequent legal claims
Inquests are publicly held court hearings, meaning the actions of public bodies are placed under scrutiny – often with media in attendance.
It is quite common for state bodies to face accusations of incompetence, neglect and substandard care, and as such, they are more often than not represented at inquests by legal teams who are employed to launch a firm defence of any suggestions they have failed in their duties.
For that reason, the role of a specialist lawyer to support families at inquests involving the state is now needed more than ever.
In many cases, our civil liberties team at Hudgell Solicitors have requested that role of inquests be extended by being held under Article 2 of the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR).
This extends their scope to consider whether the state breached its duty of care to protect the deceased’s ‘right to life’.
This could be, for example, when an individual has died in police custody or in prison, or where concerns have been raised as to whether failings by police forces, such as errors made during investigations, have contributed to their death.
Such cases are usually subject to independent investigations, such as the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC), or through Serious Incident Reports at hospital trusts, the findings of which are often explored and discussed during inquest hearings.
Whilst Coroners are not permitted to determine civil or criminal liability, the process of questioning and their final determination and conclusion can prove supportive of future legal proceedings on behalf of families, such as civil claims for damages.
Prevention of future deaths is a major focus for Coroners
Coroners now have a duty to publish Prevention of Future Death Reports in cases where they believe action should be taken to prevent similar tragedies happening in the future.
Such reports are often made at the conclusion of inquests into police related deaths, state custody deaths, deaths following clinical and medical procedures and mental health related deaths.
They often lead to significant changes in protocol, local and national learning and training, and hopefully a safer society going forward.
So, although some people will tell you an inquest is not hugely important and doesn’t have much legal power, it is certainly not the case.
With the right advice and legal support, an inquest is often the first step on a journey towards answers for families who lose loved ones, holding any individuals or bodies to account, and preventing others suffering the same fate in the future.
It is why our team are dedicated to providing specialist inquest legal support to families, as we believe it is a time when it is needed most.