There are more inquests being held than ever before, and over recent years the ambit of inquests has widened considerably, to the extent that there is a greater willingness by coroners to investigate wider issues than the actual cause of death, such as the circumstances of the death or any wider problem identified during the course of the inquest, and to then take preventative action. This means that there is now greater scrutiny of government departments, public bodies, companies and individuals and so being an interested party in an inquest cannot be taken lightly.
When will an inquest be held?
An inquest will be held in cases where the death was violent or unnatural; took place in prison or whilst in custody or when the cause of death is uncertain. It is however open to the discretion of the individual coroner whether a death should be investigated and so even if the death was due to natural causes the coroner may still hold an inquest if he or she believes that it is in the public interest to do so.
The purpose of an inquest
The purpose of an inquest is to find out who the deceased was; and how, when and where the deceased died. It is a fact finding process which is inquisitorial and not adversarial. Hence there is no determination of criminal or civil liability.
The scope of an inquest
There are two types of inquest; a traditional inquest (also known as a “Jamieson Inquest”) which requires the coroner to consider by what means the deceased came to his death, for example, suicide, accident, open verdict (there are 14 different verdicts which can be reached) or an Article 2 inquest (also known as a “Middleton Inquest”) in which there is a wider reaching enquiry into not only by what means the deceased died but also the circumstances surrounding the death.
An Article 2 inquest is required if it is arguable that the UK has breached its substantive obligation to protect the right to life. So an Article 2 inquest will be held where a person dies whilst under the care or protection of the state (for example prisoners or individuals known to the authorities to be at real and immediate risk of harm) or if a person is killed by an agent of the state (for example Ian Tomlinson). An Article 2 inquest may also be triggered if a state policy or system failure contributed to a death (for example in an NHS hospital or elsewhere). Importantly, for an Article 2 inquest to take place, the substantive obligation to protect the right to life must exist. If it does not then it would be a Jamieson Inquest that is held (for example in the case of the 7/7 inquest).
An Article 2 inquest has certain minimum requirements for the investigation, which are that the inquest should be independent, effective, and reasonably prompt, involve a sufficient element of public scrutiny, and involve the next of kin to the extent necessary.
Rule 43 report
In either type of inquest a coroner can make a report of concerns they have in order to prevent future deaths (the coroner has this wide discretion in any case in which he/she believes action should be taken to prevent the recurrence of fatalities similar to that which is being investigated).). Hence even in a Jamieson Inquest the coroner can investigate any wider problem which he or she identifies during the course of the inquest and then compile a report about it. The Rule 43 report will then be sent to the organisation with responsibility for the circumstances and they in turn have a duty to address the report (the recommendations of which may be costly to implement).
Inquests can lead to a very wide examination of the circumstances of an individual’s death. This can leave a public body and individuals vulnerable to civil proceedings, a criminal investigation and trial or referral to a professional regulator (e.g. the GMC, the NMC, the IPCC). So for anyone who is an interested party (whether it be a Trust, a public body, an individual or a family member), there are many issues that need to be carefully considered before the inquest begins.