A coroner's inquest is required where there is an unnatural or unexplained death of a person. Commercial organisations involved in these inquests should obtain specialist legal advice as soon as possible after the death.
At Saunders Law, our specialist inquest solicitors can give expert advice on coroner's inquests and guide you through the process of assisting in an investigation as well as appearing at a coroner's court. Our commercial inquest lawyers can also help with the consequences of a verdict, including responding to any recommendations for change made by the coroner, challenging the verdict where necessary via judicial review and dealing with any civil or criminal proceedings brought against your company.
What is an inquest?
For commercial organisations, any death that occurred in a workplace or was due to industrial disease or poisoning will be reported to a coroner. An inquest determines the circumstances surrounding the death. A coroner must be a doctor or lawyer (or can be both).
Where the death occurs in the workplace, the inquest is known as a "Jamieson" type inquiry. Generally, these are shorter than other types of enquiries and are only heard before a coroner. A jury can be present where the death happened as a result of an accident at work. In this case, the jury would establish the facts of the case to reach a verdict. The coroner makes the decisions on how the inquiry will proceed including the:
- issues to be investigated;
- documents to be considered;
- witnesses that will be asked to give evidence; and
- timings and length of the inquest.
A participant in an inquiry is called a "Properly Interested Person" (IP). The family of the deceased is automatically given this status. In a workplace incident, the company will be an IP since they will have "sufficient interest" in the inquest.
Inquests are fact-finding exercises and cannot:
- determine liability;
- pass sentence or punishment on anyone involved; or
- award compensation to the family of the deceased.
The inquest process
An inquest is opened when the coroner is notified of a death (usually by a doctor or the police). There is then a post mortem performed by a pathologist who examines the body and organs to try to determine the cause of death. The pathologist then makes a report for the coroner who issues an interim death certificate allowing the family to make funeral arrangements. Other investigations may be required (for example by the Health & Safety Executive) and the inquest can be adjourned for these to be performed. Any reports will be provided for the inquest, though do not necessarily affect the outcome.
During the inquest the lawyers of the IPs will make representations. Those involved in the events that surrounded the death may also be called to give evidence and there can be questions by the lawyers in order to obtain a better understanding of what happened.
The burden of proof in an inquest is on "a balance of probabilities" except where the verdict is suicide or unlawful killing, in which case it has to be "beyond reasonable doubt".
The outcome and verdict
A verdict can be given that the actions of any relevant person contributed to the death. It can also offer criticisms on how a situation should have been better handled. An inquest can also result in a claim for damages being brought against a commercial organisation. An inquest lawyer at Saunders Law can advise commercial clients facing a coroner's inquest on the decisions made by the coroner as well as the necessary steps to follow once a verdict has been reached.
The coroner can give a "narrative" verdict where they read out a statement detailing the circumstances of the death using the evidence heard. More commonly the coroner gives a "short-form" verdict, such as:
- Natural causes – the death was not significantly contributed to by human intervention.
- Accidental death – there was nothing unlawful about the death even though it was not naturally occurring.
- Misadventure – the cause of death is due to a deliberate action by the deceased.
- Suicide – the deceased voluntarily took actions to end their life.
- Neglect – this is usually a contributing factor rather than the only cause of death. It is a result of a gross failure to provide for the basic needs (nutrition, drink, medical care) of the deceased that resulted in their death.
- Unlawful killing – caused by a criminal act such as murder, manslaughter or serious driving offences.
- Open verdict – the coroner cannot determine a verdict from the evidence. This is very rarely used.
"Prevention of future deaths" report
If the coroner feels that the death was preventable had a person or organisation acted differently then they can recommend a change. The organisation usually receives a report from the coroner and then has 56 days to respond in writing. Generally, the organisation must confirm it has changed its practices or protocols as a result of the coroner's recommendations. Our inquest lawyers can advise on this in order to implement changes to ensure business continuity as well as compliance with the coroner's recommendations.
Overturning a verdict
It is possible to challenge the decision once the inquest has concluded in exceptional situations but there can be time limits, so it is imperative you have expert legal advice to make sure you follow the correct procedure in the relevant time frame.
Contact our Specialist Commercial Inquest Lawyers London
At Saunders Law, our specialist inquest solicitors can advise and represent commercial organisations if they are involved in a coroner's inquest regarding a non-natural death. We have a wealth of experience and can ensure you are fully represented to offer the maximum support to your organisation through the whole process.
Please contact us for a free, no-obligation discussion on how we can assist you.