Military inquests and service inquiries

What happens if there’s a military inquest or service inquiry? How might this affect family members? Find out about the process and what to expect.

Not all military deaths require an inquest or a service inquiry (this was formerly known as a Board of Inquiry). Every death is different, and is treated on a case-by-case basis.

However, if an inquest or a service inquiry is requested, here’s what you can expect to happen.

What is an Inquest?

The purpose of an inquest is to establish the cause of death. It’s a civil matter, which means that the Ministry of Defence (MOD) doesn’t have any control over it.

Coroners investigate deaths where the cause is unknown, and will work on Inquests. It’s important to know that coroners work independently. They’re appointed by the Ministry of Justice (MOJ). 

To make the inquest process smoother, the MOD has set up the Defence Inquest Unit (DIU). The DIU are the link between coroners and the police investigating the Inquest.

When an inquest date has been set, the family of the service person will be sent a DVD. It has been produced by the MOD, and explains what families can expect from the process.

The inquest process

For any military death that wasn’t due to natural causes, the Coroner is required to hold an inquest. They may also request another post-mortem examination, even if one has already been done.

Where there’s a chance that the death was criminal, they might request for two post-mortems.

The MOD will send British Pathologists to Germany and other overseas bases to conduct post-mortems. All operational deaths have post-mortems at the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford.

Normally a coroner will open an inquest and then pause it while information is gathered. This is very common, and is an administrative function. This part of the process doesn’t involve a court hearing.

Once the coroner has received the police report, and they have all the evidence they need, they’ll set a date for the inquest. The coroner will deal directly with the bereaved family, and should consult them before fixing the date.

We recommend not finalising any funeral arrangements until the Coroner has released the body to the undertaker.

For operational death Inquests, there are different proceedings based on how many people died.

If there were multiple deaths, Inquests are held before the Oxford Coroner.

If there was one death, it’ll be given to a Coroner who has jurisdiction in the area where the funeral took place. 

For bereaved families in Scotland and Northern Ireland, there are differences in legislation that prevent the inquest from being delegated.

If the death was due to Service, funding will be given for three family members to travel to the inquest.

The Visiting Officer will normally accompany the family. This is generally the final duty the VO carries out. 

The Royal British Legion can offer legal advice to families ahead of an Inquest, but they’re not able to provide legal representation. 

In Scotland, an Inquest is known as an Fatal Accident Inquiry. These are treated differently to Inquests, and don’t include deaths that happen outside Scotland. 

If a death was due to a criminal act (not including operational deaths), the case will be referred to either:

  • The Crown Prosecution Service 
  • The Procurator Fiscal (Scotland only)
  • The Service Prosecuting Authority (this is for cases based in military law)

It’s common to have an Inquest as well as a criminal case.

What are service inquiries?

A Service Inquiry is held to learn more about an incident that caused a death or serious injury. The aim is to understand the circumstances, learn lessons and to change procedures/equipment to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

Families of people who have died will be invited to attend any of these legal proceedings.

Looking for further support?

We’re here for you. We’ve got a range of support guides specifically for bereaved military families.