An Inquest is a formal legal hearing presided over by the coroner. The form of address is “Sir” or “Madam” not ” Your Honour.” The coroner and any legal representatives will just wear suits not formal legal robes.
The Inquest will be tape recorded. Often the coroner makes his own notes as well. Unless the Inquest involves issues of national security it is a public hearing so anyone can attend to observe. If the case is high profile members of the press sometimes come to observe.
Sometimes there will be a jury. When the hearing starts the coroner will go through the formal process of empanelling the jury ( between 7-11 jurors). At the end of the inquest the jury will retire to consider its Conclusion (previously called the verdict.)
The length of an inquest can vary from a few hours to weeks or months depending on the complexity of the case. The new Hillsborough Disaster Inquest lasted for 12 months.
Because the inquest is a fact finding hearing the coroner takes the lead. The coroner will decide the order of the witnesses, and will ask each witness questions to draw out their evidence. Then each interested person ( or if they a represented, their legal representative) is allowed to ask any questions they might have. A witness gives sworn evidence. He will either take an oath on his holy book, or read an affirmation which is a solemn promise to tell the truth. Sometimes the coroner makes a witness stay outside the hearing until he is called to give his evidence. Generally a witness can leave once he has given his evidence. Sometimes the coroner can ask a witness to stay for the rest of the case, or to hear another witnesses’ evidence. This is in case something comes up and the coroner needs to recall the witness to give some more evidence. In certain circumstances , evidence can be given via video link or from behind a screen. Apart from witnesses who give evidence about the facts leading to the death the coroner may hear from independent expert witnesses, for example, a clinical expert on a rare medical condition, or an expert in training drivers of emergency vehicles. Sometimes evidence that is not disputed is read out during the hearing by the coroner or coroner’s officer so that it becomes part of the formal evidence.
If there is a jury at the end of the evidence the coroner will sum it up to the jury and direct them on the legal principles that apply. Quite often the jury will be given a list of pre-agreed questions to help it reach its Conclusion. The jury will then retire to consider its Conclusion. Once the jury has finalised its deliberations the jury will return and its Conclusion will be read out in the court. If the coroner has sat by himself he can hear submissions from legal representatives or unrepresented interested persons on legal points only. He will then consider the evidence before announcing his conclusion in court. In either case a form called The Record of Inquest has to be filled in. At this stage, in certain cases the coroner has a statutory power pursuant to Rule 28 The Coroners (Investigations) Regulations 2013 to make a report to prevent future deaths. This is where the coroner has a concern that circumstances creating a risk of other deaths will occur, or will continue to exist in the future. In the coroner’s opinion, action should be taken to prevent the occurrence or continuation of such circumstances or to eliminate or reduce the risk of death created by such circumstances. The coroner usually gives an indication in court that he is going to do this before the hearing is brought to a formal close.
Family members may find it a bit disconcerting, but quite often some of the witnesses will come up to them at the end of the hearing to offer their condolences. The coroner’s officer will explain to the family what will happen next in terms of the paperwork.
Our lawyers can provide a comprehensive advisory and representation service to anyone who becomes involved in the inquest hearing process whether an individual, professional, public organisation, or business.
Please call Inquest Representation Service on 033 00 77 00 97 for more information about how we may be able to assist you at an inquest hearing. All calls are treated in confidence and are without obligation.
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