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24 Mar 2022

Participating in an inquest

An inquest is an inquiry into the cause and circumstances of a death. The purpose of an inquest is to establish the answer to four key questions; who was the deceased, when, where and how they came by their death.  It is an inquisitorial fact-finding exercise and so there are no parties to an inquest, instead people, businesses and organisations can be made Interested Persons (“IP”). IP status gives a person key rights to information about the inquest and the ability participate in it. This article explains the role of an IP and examines what it really means for an individual or organisation when they become one.

Who participates in an inquest?

When preparing for an inquest a Coroner will invite a number of individuals to become an IP, a status which gives them a right to actively participate in the proceedings. Section 47 of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009 lists a wide range of individuals who should be named an IP. This includes members of the bereaved family, any medical examiners, any person whose act or omission may have caused or contributed to the death and, critically, anyone who the Coroner thinks has a sufficient interest.  This latter category provides the Coroner with significant latitude in deciding who can participate. By way of example, companies or organisations which have lobbying or charitable status can be made IPs. In a recent and high profile case inquest into the death of Jack Ritchie before Sheffield Coroner’s Court; the charities GambleAware and Gam Care were made IPs alongside the Gambling Commission.

If the Coroner does not appoint a person as an IP, they may apply to the Coroner to be recognised as one. The scope of person who should be determined to be an IP is a point that is frequently raised pre-inquest.  R v Coroner for the Southern District of Greater London; ex parte Driscoll (1993) is the leading authority in which the term “properly interested” was developed. In Driscoll, the sister of the deceased judicially reviewed the Coroner’s decision not to allow her to participate in the inquest.  It was decided that “interested” should not be given a narrow or technical meaning. When applying these principles and considering the point further in a pre-inquest review into the London bombings of 7 July 2005,  Lady Justice Hallett decided whether a person is “properly interested” was determined by the closeness of the relationship to the deceased, the promptness of the application and a genuine desire to participate and assist the process[1].  In summary, the range of persons who can be made an IP is wide and determined on a case-by-case basis.

Rights of an interested person

An IP has the right to participate in an inquest and the two key rights that enable them to do this are firstly,  a right to disclosure and secondly, a right to ask questions in the inquest. In respect of disclosure, an IP can request that the Coroner disclose to them any relevant documentation they hold.  This might include post mortem related papers, toxicology reports and witness statements. This disclosure will then enable an IP decide which areas they would like to explore through questioning of witnesses.

An IP will also have a right to be kept up to date about the progress of preparation for the inquest.

What an Interested Person needs to consider

Where an individual or company is designated as an IP, they should consider whether they would benefit from legal representation. The IP should consider what they want from the inquest process or how they may be impacted by the outcome of it.  Family members often want answers; to understand how their loved one died and understand whether other similar deaths could be prevented.  Other IPs may have a different objectives and interests in the outcome, for example avoiding criticism in the Coroner’s verdict or in any reports.  Whatever the objective of the IP, it is important that the process is handled with sensitivity, taking into account the objectives and vulnerability of other IPs, especially the bereaved.

A legal representative will advise the IP about any evidence to be considered during the inquest which may affect them specifically or may shed light on issues that they are interested in.  A legal representative can also help the IP prepare for any request for evidence that might be made of them by the Coroner.

Once the material disclosed by the Coroner has been considered, the IP can take an informed decision about whether they will actively participate in the inquest or whether to watch as a passive observer.  In the former case, the IP can request that witnesses are required to give live evidence so that they can be questioned on the IP’s behalf. Their legal representative will not address the Coroner on the facts of the inquest, but they can assist with submissions on the law.  When considering how witnesses will be questioned, it is important to note that these are not adversarial proceedings.   The Solicitors Regulation Authority has recently published guidance warning legal professionals about how to deal with inquests sensitively and appropriately[2]  and IPs  should expect their lawyer to advise them about the approach they are required to take in advance of the hearing.

An IP’s involvement may not end at the conclusion of the inquest.  Where a Coroner concludes that their investigation gives rise to a concern that there is risk of further deaths in the future, they must prepare a report and serve it on whoever they think may be able to prevent that risk. This is known as a prevention of future deaths report, also known as a “Regulation 28 report”.   Where a person, organisation, local authority or government department or agency is served with a Regulation 28 report they are obliged to respond to it within 56 days detailing any action that has been taken or to explain why no action has been taken. Sometimes IPs are the subject of Regulation 28 reports and required to respond to them. IPs can also ask to be sent the response to a Regulation 28 report, if  it is not published.   In the Jack Ritchie case, the Department of Education, the Department of Health and Social Care and the Department of Culture, Media and Sport were all asked to address matters of concern relating to gambling, addiction and possible treatments,  It is expected that their responses will be published and if not they will be sent to the IPs listed above.

As will be apparent from the above, it is important for any individual or organisation who is named an IP in an inquest to consider their objectives and consider how they will meet them.  IPs should also take into account the Coroner’s objectives and the objectives of other IPs. An inquest is a sensitive process, careful preparation and a nuanced approach is required.

[1] https://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/ukgwa/20120216072438/http:/7julyinquests.independent.gov.uk/docs/orders/dec-april-2010.pdfhttps://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/ukgwa/20120216072438/http:/7julyinquests.independent.gov.uk/docs/orders/dec-april-2010.pdf

[2] https://www.sra.org.uk/solicitors/resources/practising-coroners-court/

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