An inquest is a special investigation held if it’s not clear how or why someone died, or if their death was unnatural.
An inquest can be an emotional experience for relatives and friends. Waiting to get answers as to how someone died and whether their death can be prevented can also be very difficult. At the moment many inquests are being delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic. If you are struggling to cope while waiting for answers, we can help. You can call our helpline or chat to us.
What is a coroner?
The coroner is an official who makes inquiries into deaths reported to them, which may be unnatural or of an unexpected or unknown cause.
The Coroner has a legal duty to investigate all unexpected or ‘unnatural’ deaths and to decide whether an inquest is necessary to determine the cause of death.
What happens at an inquest?
An inquest is a special court hearing which looks into how someone died. Inquests are held to find out facts – the ‘how,’ ‘when’ and ‘where,’ not the ‘why’ – and are not like criminal trials. The coroner and legal representatives should treat witnesses, especially bereaved people, with care and respect.
The coroner uses the inquest to answer to the questions: who the person was; where they died; when they died and how they came by their death. At the end of the inquest there will be a ‘verdict’ which includes the cause of death.
Inquests step by step
- A sudden or unexpected death will be reported to the Coroner by the police, a doctor or the registrar of births and deaths.
- The Coroner’s office should get in touch with the next of kin within one day, and give you a named person to contact for updates.
- If a doctor cannot say what caused the person to die, the Coroner will arrange a post-mortem. This is a full examination of the body by a doctor.
- If the post-mortem shows that the death was due to natural causes, the Coroner will send a certificate to the Registrar of Deaths and the death can be registered.
- If the death is considered ‘unnatural’ the law states the Coroner must hold an inquest. This is a public court hearing to find who died, how and why.
- The inquest should be ‘opened’ (the procedure started) as soon as possible, and there will be a brief hearing (meeting at the court) to open and adjourn (put off) the inquest. This is to give time for all the evidence to be collected.
- The death can’t be registered until after the inquest is complete. But the coroner can give you an interim death certificate to prove the person is dead. You can use this to let organisations know of the death and apply for probate, which means you can access any money the person left behind.
- It may be several weeks or months before the full inquest hearing. You should be kept informed of progress and the reason for any delay. Where possible the Coroner’s office should take into account any religious or cultural preferences.
- The full inquest will be held in public. If the death occurred in prison or custody, or if it resulted from an accident at work, there will usually be a jury at the inquest. Witnesses (for example a doctor, police officer or eyewitness) may be asked to attend to give evidence. Members of the public and media are normally allowed to attend the inquest.
- You may be asked to give evidence. This might be to give information about the person who died or the death. If you think this will be too difficult you can ask if you can give a written statement and this might be read out by the Coroner’s officer.
- At the end of the inquest the coroner (or jury where there is one) comes to a conclusion. This includes the legal ‘determination’, which states who died, and where, when and how they died. The coroner or jury also makes ‘findings’ to allow the cause of death to be registered.
- When recording the cause of death the coroner or jury may use one of the following terms: accident or misadventure; alcohol/drug related; open (the cause of death cannot be established and doubt remains as to how the person died); suicide.
- The coroner or jury may also make a brief ‘narrative’ verdict. This is a statement explaining the facts of the death in more detail, and explaining the reasons for the decision.
- After the inquest the coroner will tell the Registrar of Deaths about the cause of death so that you can register the death.