When is an inquest needed?
If the post-mortem examination shows that a death is not from natural causes (either immediately after the post-mortem examination or after further tests have been carried out) an inquest will be held (in Scotland a ‘fatal accident inquiry' although the circumstances in which a fatal accident enquiry may be held and how they are arranged is significantly different).
There are certain cases where a coroner is obliged to hold an inquest even when the death is from natural causes, such as when someone has been in state detention e.g under arrest or in prison, at the time of death.
The coroner will open the inquest in order to issue a burial order or cremation certificate (if not already issued immediately after the post-mortem examination) as well as hearing evidence confirming the identity of the deceased. The inquest will then be adjourned to be resumed at a later date. When the coroner's investigations are complete, a date for the inquest is set and the people who need to know will be told. Inquests are open to the public and journalists are usually present. From 2013 most inquests should take place within 6 months of the death but this may take some time to implement as some parts of the country have rather longer waits.
Inquests are not permitted to determine blame and the conclusion (verdict) will not identify someone as having criminal or civil liability.
If police charge someone with causing the death, the inquest will not be resumed and the next of kin will be informed of the arrangements made to register the death. This is to avoid two different courts examining the same evidence.
Will the funeral and probate have to be delayed?
If a coroner decides an inquest is necessary it does not mean that all the practical issues have to be delayed until the inquest is complete. The investigations for inquests can sometimes take weeks or even months depending on the complexity of the case.
As well as issuing permission for the funeral to go ahead, the coroner can issue a Certificate of the Fact of Death (often referred to as an interim certificate), which can be used to notify asset holders and other organisations of the death and to make an application for probate.
A grant of probate or letters of administration can be obtained and the estate distributed. However some insurance companies will not pay out from any policies held in case the circumstances of the death makes the policy invalid, e.g. if the person who died took their own life.
If police are investigating a death in suspicious circumstances, this may also delay distribution of an estate because a beneficiary will be disqualified if they are convicting of causing the death.
How will I know what is happening?
A coroner's officer will keep you up to date with what is happening. They will be aware that it can very difficult and frustrating when you are waiting for what seems like a very long time to find out what happened to the person who died and have things fully explained. Often the coroner's officers are waiting for information from police, doctors or other investigatory agencies (such as the Health and Safety Executive). A coroner's officer should contact you at least once every 3 months while you are waiting for the inquest to update you on the progress of the investigation. If you need to call the coroner's officer for any reason, it is best to avoid first thing in the morning when the phones will be especially busy with new investigations being notified to them.
Will I be able to register the death?
It may be possible to make an appointment with the Registrar of Births & Deaths once you have the interim certificate which will allow you to use the Tell Us Once service if available and obtain the BD8 form from the registrar to notify the Department of Work & Pensions of the death. Please call the Registration service to find out is this service is available in your area. However, you will not receive the death certificates until after the inquest.
Who can be witnesses at an inquest?
Coroners decide who should give evidence as a witness, and witnesses are required by law to attend. Anyone who believes that they may have information that may help can offer to give evidence by informing the coroner. If anyone believes a particular witness should attend, they should inform the coroner.
Anyone with a legitimate interest is also allowed to question witnesses at an inquest, for example, relatives.
The coroner must be made aware of anyone who believes they have a legitimate interest and the nature of their questions before the inquest.
What are the possible outcomes?
Possible outcomes include: natural causes; accident; suicide; unlawful or lawful killing; industrial disease and open verdicts (where there is insufficient evidence for any other verdict). Sometimes a coroner uses a longer sentence describing the circumstances of the death, which is called a narrative verdict.
The coroner may report the death to any appropriate person or authority, such as the Health and Safety Executive if action is needed to prevent more deaths in similar circumstances.
At the close of the inquest the coroner forwards information to the registrar of births and deaths to allow the death to be registered and the family can then purchase death certificates from the registrar. This can be done by post if the family live at some distance from the registration office.
Here's some more information on what to expect from a coroner's inquest. Co-op Legal Services offer specialist legal support for coroner's inquest representation.
The Coroners' Courts Support Service
This is a charity that provides support to bereaved families during an inquest. Because it is a charity and most support is provided by volunteers the service is only provided in a limited number of courts. You can find the list of courts where the service is provided.
Please call if you have any questions about inquests, how to find specialist support or to find your nearest coroner's office.