There are a number of coroner’s courts across the country. The coroner’s court which has jurisdiction is where the body is located. The Coroner will order an autopsy if there is any doubt about the cause of death, the coroner will arrange for an autopsy. Usually the outcome of the autopsy is death by natural causes, in which case the Coroner takes no further steps. However, if the cause of death is unclear the Coroner will arrange for an inquest. This goes beyond death by obvious violent causes or unusual circumstances, including apparent suicides. It will also cover road accident fatalities.
There are tight restrictions on what a coroner can do and it is important relatives understand this at the outset. A coroner’s inquest is not a trial. The coroner’s duty is restricted to ascertaining as a question of fact who died, when, where, and how. The coroner cannot preempt a civil or criminal trial by deciding if someone was negligent or committed a criminal offence. It is only about establishing the facts. That said the information which comes out is likely to be material to a civil claim or criminal prosecution, and if any person who may have been negligent is insured their insurance company is likely to have a lawyer present. Statements from such a person or witnesses to the incident will also be material in formulating a subsequent civil claim. Police statements and reports as well as witness statements they have taken, should also be available which will be important evidence.
Before the hearing
It is helpful to get the statements and other information well before the coroner’s hearing though this may be difficult especially if the police have referred the matter to the Crown Prosecution Service for a possible criminal prosecution. There is however nothing to stop the deceased family’s lawyer approaching witnesses for information though they may be unwilling to talk. For the deceased’s family the key is in preparation and asking the right questions.
The coroner may decide to have a preliminary hearing if the matter is complex. This will be to decide which witnesses should be called and what other preliminary steps should be taken. If there are various events leading up to the death, how each aspect is investigated will need to be considered. The coroner may need to decide whether the hearing should be with a jury.
Most coroner’s hearings take place without a jury. The coroner hears the evidence and takes the decisions. In a very small number of cases the coroner may decide there should be a jury. This may be because the death was whilst in custody, involves the police or it relates to a health and safety issue. The jury is selected at random in the same way as for other courts. The jury can ask questions and decides the verdict.
Evidence at the hearing
At the hearing the coroner may accept evidence by way of a statement without the person being present to be questioned. This is likely to be the case if the evidence is uncontroversial, for instance a routine report from a doctor. It is a good idea to ask for the doctor’s medical notes in advance. Sometimes these can be very short and difficult to understand, which may mean the doctor’s presence as a witness is desirable. However, it is important for the family to think whether the person should be present as he may have material evidence which is not fully brought out in a witness statement. The coroner has power to compel witnesses to attend. However the witness cannot be compelled to give evidence and it is not unknown for witnesses to say they cannot properly remember what happened because of the shock they suffered.
Evidence is given under oath. Family members of the deceased are entitled to put questions to the witness. It is best to avoid these becoming aggressive or adversarial as the hearing is only about facts and introducing blame will not help at this stage and the coroner will stop the questioning.
Verdicts open to Coroner
The coroner can return the following verdicts: -
Accident or misadventure
A narrative, which enables the coroner to set out the circumstances by which the death came about
Miscellaneous (drug dependence/industrial)
Open, meaning that there is insufficient evidence to decide how the death came about – the case is left open in case further evidence appears.