Who is an Interested Person in Coroners Law?
Any number of people may find that they become involved with an Inquest ranging from immediate family members, doctors and other health care professionals who were involved in the care of the deceased to someone who witnessed an accident. Some of those people can be classed as “interested persons” (previously known as “interested parties”). The designation is determined by the coroner. Being given the status of interested person gives them the right (if they wish) to particpate, and to play an active part in the Inquest hearing, or any Pre-Inquest Review hearing. For someone who is not classed as an interested person their role will be limited to attending to give evidence if requested or summonsed to do so by the coroner. Because an inquest is not an adversarial process there are no parties just interested persons.
If you are classed as an interested person:
- You should be notified of the date, time and location of the inquest;
- You can examine (ask questions) of all witnesses called by the coroner – in person or through a representative (solicitor, barrister, Legal Executive with a qualification in representation before Coroner’s inquests, or a registered European lawyer)
- Broadly, on request you are entitled (payment of a fee may be requested) to disclosure of a) any post mortem examination report, b) any other report that has been provided to the coroner during the course of the investigation, c) the recording of the public part of any inquest hearing and d) any document which the coroner considers relevant to the inquest.
- You can address the coroner on points of law and procedure, (but not the facts – R v (Hair) v HM Coroner for Staffordshire (South)  EWHC 2580 Admin.) Read the report. see also Rule 27 Coroner’s Inquest Rules 2013.
- You are entitled to a copy of any rule 28 report to prevent other deaths made by the coroner and to see copies of the responses (although the coroner can veto this.),
- Following the Court of Appeal decision in R v Inner London Coroner, ex parte Douglas-Williams  1 All ER 344 the coroner should prepare and circulate among interested persons any difficult legal direction he is proposing to give a jury.
The following people automatically class as interested persons: a parent, spouse, civil partner, partner, grandparent, grandchild, child of a brother or sister, stepfather, stepmother and half-brother or half- sister; and any personal representative; any beneficiary under a policy on the life of the deceased; the insurer who issued the policy; any person whose act or omission, or that of his servant or agent, may have caused or contributed to the death; This means that an organisation or business can be an interested person. For example, an NHS hospital trust, or a care home. Other interested persons include, a trade union representative if the death is by injury in the course of employment or from industrial disease; the inspector of an enforcing authority or government department. In cases where the death may have been caused by homicide a chief constable can be an interested person. Similarly if there has been a formal investigation by the Independent Police Complaints Commission the Commission can be an interested person. Even if someone does not fall within any of the automatic categories there is a wider “catch-all” clause of “any other person who in the opinion of the senior coroner “has a sufficient interest” This is a matter of the coroner’s discretion and someone who wanted to use this provision would need to apply to the coroner to request interested person status. For example, this could be a member of the wider family, or a survivor from an accident or disaster.
Anyone who thinks they may be an interested person should consider taking preliminary legal advice in order to consider whether they should be represented at the inquest. In order to be able to make the most effective use of interested person status it is advisable to consult a lawyer who is experienced in inquest law, practice and procedure because it is a specialist area. Apart from advising whether you should be represented, a lawyer who practices in this area will be able to advise what steps should be taken before the inquest, for example inviting the coroner to consider instructing an independent expert, or identifying that a witness should attend to give evidence instead of having his evidence read into the record.
At the inquest the focus of the coroner is to establish the answer to 4 questions: who the deceased was, and when, where and how he came by his death. It is the last question which is the nub of the case. Unless there is an enhanced inquest [where a proactive investigation is required to determine whether an agent of the state unlawfully took life and /or whether state agents failed to take adequate steps to protect life when under a duty to do so under Article 2 of the European Convention of Human Rights] the focus of the evidence to answer the last question will be on the circumstances immediately leading up to the death. It is not the coroner’s job to carry out an investigation of the wider circumstances or issues.
An interested person can use the assistance of a lawyer to identify the relevant issues and areas where questions should be asked. Giving this information to the coroner in advance of the inquest can assist him to decide what evidence needs to be obtained and who should give evidence. In the case of a hospital death the immediate family may have lots of concerns or questions about the care their loved one received, may want to try to attach blame to the hospital or particular individuals, or ensure lessons are learnt to prevent a recurrence. The hospital notes are likely to be very important. A lawyer can help the family get copies of the hospital notes. He will be able to pick out and advise what questions should be asked, and can indicate which areas are not relevant or outside the remit of the coroner.
In a case involving a death in hospital quite a number of doctors, nurses or other health care professionals may be called to give evidence. But it is important for them to consider whether they might be an interested party within the category “any person whose act or omission, or that of his servant or agent, may have caused or contributed to the death” This is particularly relevant if the professional knows that something he/she did or did not do in the care or treatment of the deceased is likely to be subject to scrutiny. The coroner or jury is not permitted to deliver a verdict which is framed in such a way as to appear to determine any question of criminal liability on the part of a named person, or, civil liability (section 10(2) Coroners and Justice Act 2009.) But, certain inquest verdicts can have a neglect rider attached – if on the balance of probabilities there has been a gross failure to provide food, drink or medicine to a person in a dependent position (due to youth, incarceration, illness or age) . No health care professional will want this sort of outcome because it may encourage the relatives to consider whether they could bring a civil claim for negligence. There is the potential of damage to his professional standing even where there has been no neglect rider but some failing on his part has been identified as a contributory factor to the death. If the Coroner feels that the behaviour of a professional raises questions of professional misconduct he can make a referral to the regulator such as the General Medical Council for medical doctors, or the Nursing and Midwifery Council for nurses and midwives. Health care professionals need to alert to the fact that they might be in a position where there is a conflict of interest with their employers (NHS Trust or Private nursing home) so they might need their own legal representative to best protect their interests. It is important to seek legal advice about getting separate representation if this could be the case.
If you are a business, for example a private care home and the deceased died whilst in your care your reputation could be at risk with consequent economic ramifications. It will be important to protect your business interests as far as possible. This could be in relation to trying to establish a particular verdict or trying to avoid a neglect rider. But, the coroner also has the power at the end of his investigation to make a Report to prevent future deaths. If this happens in a case involving your business or organisation you must respond within 56 days giving details of any action that has been taken or which it is proposed will be taken, or giving an explanation as to why no action is proposed.
Being an interested person does not mean that you will automatically be sent any of the evidence the coroner has gathered before the inquest. You do have to request it. As stated above any interested person is entitled to ask questions of any of the witnesses after the coroner has done so. Inquest law is complex. Using a lawyer who is experienced and understands the case law can be invaluable to try and obtain the best outcome for a particular interested person through the questioning of the witnesses, or in making legal submissions on what verdicts the coroner could properly consider. In more complex inquests with a jury the lawyer will be able to play a role in the questions to be given to the jury to consider, and will know which legal principles the coroner should explain to the jury in his summing up.
All our lawyers at Inquest Representation Service are experienced in representing a whole range of interested persons at jury and non-jury inquests around the UK. If you would like advice about whether you are an interested person, or would like representation please call us on 033 00 77 00 97. Calls are without obligation and are treated in strictest confidence.
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