The coroner will hold an inquest to establish the cause of an unexpected death (in cases where the death is unnatural or where the cause is unknown).

The coroner is in charge of the hearing and will call witnesses to give evidence and ask them to answer questions. Families and their legal representatives also have the opportunity to ask the witnesses questions. At the end of an inquest the Coroner will make findings as to what caused the death.

Although the Coroner does not say who is ‘at fault’, any verdict might be useful in a subsequent compensation claim - it might confirm a medical issue, or it may shed some light on facts surrounding the death that may not have surfaced otherwise.

What happens before, during and after the Inquest?

First, why an inquest?

In England and Wales the Coroner will hold an Inquest when he is notified of a death that was violent or unnatural or, in the case of a sudden death, where the cause is unknown.

The Coroner will not investigate all deaths. However death resulting from an industrial disease such as the asbestos cancer mesothelioma is deemed “unnatural” and in most cases the Coroner will begin (“open”) an Inquest of his own accord.

Sometimes the Coroner and the family will disagree as to whether an Inquest should be opened. In some cases it is possible to challenge a Coroner’s decision not to hold an Inquest. The family may be able to influence the question that the coroner asks or the evidence that he calls for. This is where legal representation can be very helpful.

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The Timescale

Some Inquests can be concluded within a few weeks. If a Hearing is needed then this will probably take place a few months after the death, but each case is different.

There may be delay if someone has been charged with a criminal offence in connection with the death (e.g. murder/manslaughter).

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Post Mortem Medical Examination

It is almost always the case that a Coroner who opens an Inquest will require a post-mortem examination.

The main exception is when the deceased was suffering from a well-diagnosed and advanced terminal condition.

In most cases a post mortem will help establish the cause of death. This could be relevant to any compensation claim.

It may be possible to obtain a post-mortem report at private expense if the Coroner has not already done so.

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Asbestos Related Deaths

A post-mortem examination can provide new and unexpected medical information about the cause of death. That information may be relevant to any compensation claim.

If a claim has already begun or has been contemplated then it is essential that the Defendant (the person or company against who the claim is made) is informed of the death and is given the Coroner’s details as a matter of urgency.

If the Defendant is not given the opportunity to obtain and safeguard relevant medical information then the civil court might not allow any compensation claim to be made at all. This is especially true where lung cancer is involved.

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Death Certificates

A death certificate will not normally be granted until the Inquest is finalised, although an “interim certificate of the fact of death” will normally be issued within a few days of the death.

This certificate should be accepted by banks, insurers, the Benefits Agency and others as proof of death so that bank accounts can be accessed, life insurance payments can be requested, direct debit payments for utilities and insurance be terminated and so on.

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The Funeral

The funeral may be held once the Coroner releases the body.

The Coroner will normally allow burial or cremation once the examination of the body is complete, within a few days of the death, even though the Inquest process has only just begun.

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Who's At Fault

It is not the Coroner’s role to establish who was at ‘fault’. Instead it is the Coroner’s role simply to establish what happened and to give his verdict accordingly. The Coroner can give a ‘short form’ verdict or a ‘narrative’ verdict.

Possible ‘short form’ verdicts are:

  • neglect
  • unlawful killing
  • suicide
  • attempted/self-induced abortion
  • accident/misadventure
  • natural causes
  • industrial disease
  • want of attention at birth
  • drugs dependency
  • open verdict
  • lawful killing

After hearing the evidence, the coroner will give the jury a summary of the evidence and will tell them what verdicts are available in the light of that evidence. The jury will then deliver its verdict. Sometimes the Coroner will give a verdict himself.

A coroner may choose to give a ‘narrative’ verdict in which he will provide a clear and concise statement of events. This will be phrased neutrally but often provides more information than simply giving one of the ‘short-form verdicts’. When there is a Jury the coroner may invite them to answer factual questions. If the inquest shows that something could be done to prevent other deaths, the coroner may report this to the relevant organisation that has the power to take action. This is referred to as a “Rule 43 Report”.

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Will there be a Public Hearing?

In some cases the Coroner will conduct an Inquest “on the papers” without a public hearing if he is satisfied about the medical cause of death and the surrounding circumstances.

For example, where someone has died in a hospice after suffering for a period from the asbestos cancer of mesothelioma then the Coroner might enter a verdict of “Death by Industrial Disease” without any hearing and perhaps without any Post Mortem examination.

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Representation at a Hearing

Representation by lawyers at a hearing might raise issues or might uncover evidence which is valuable to the family. This might simply help the family understand what has happened. It might help avert similar deaths in the future. It might help in a later compensation claim.

Public funding (“Legal Aid”)is not generally available to cover representation at the inquest but there are exceptions. The costs of paying for representation may be recoverable if a later civil claim for damages is successful. We might act on a ‘no win no fee’ basis for the family or we might arrange pro bono (i.e. free) representation.

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Media Coverage

All inquests must be held in public and someone from the press might be present in court. The coroner will make every effort to treat the family sympathetically and will often not read out personal notes or letters or display other sensitive evidence unless it is essential. The Coroner may warn the family before such evidence is produced to allow them to withdraw if they wish.

In some cases the person, company or organisation who is said to have caused the death might be present. They might give evidence. They may be represented by lawyers.

In some instances the family may want to publicise the inquest, and it is possible to prepare a press statement to give to journalists.

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Although the Coroner does not say who is ‘at fault’, any verdict might be useful in a subsequent compensation claim - it might confirm a medical issue, or it may shed some light on facts surrounding the death that may not have surfaced otherwise.

For the family the Inquest may provide the first and possibly last opportunity to ask the right questions and to get some answers that will help them come to terms with what has happened.

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