A letter from the coroner’s office can be intimidating. Markel UK’s experts explain how the inquest process works and how to navigate it.
An inquest is a public court hearing held by a coroner. Its purpose is to establish four things: who has died, and when, where, and how the death occurred. Unlike other courts, an inquest has no power to apportion blame – it’s solely a fact-finding exercise.
There are two types of inquest; a standard inquest that is heard before a coroner and an Article 2 inquest that is presided over by a coroner, but a jury is present to make findings and determine the cause of death. Article 2 inquests are more unusual and tend to occur where there has been a death in custody or where the state has failed to protect the deceased against a risk.
Not all deaths require an inquest. One will only take place if the cause of death remains unclear after the initial post-mortem, if there is reason to suspect the death was violent or unnatural, or if it occurred under state custody. A coroner can also choose to hold an inquest if they consider it to be in the public interest.
“It’s important to be prepared”, says Charlotte Rowe, Care Practice Manager at Markel Care Practitioners. Her team provides support and advice to clients in the care sector after a death, ensuring that they are organised and ready for a potential inquest as early as possible. While many care organisations have the necessary experience to get through the inquest process themselves “it is important to consider whether their insurer can offer support or indeed makes notification of such matters a requirement” Charlotte advises.
After deciding that an inquest is necessary, the coroner will then determine who will have interested person status. An interested person is someone who has the right to actively participate in the inquest, and the status confers various legal rights, such as the right to see written evidence, the right to legal representation and to question witnesses at the hearing. An interested person is generally someone who is either related to the deceased, involved in the circumstances of the death, or deemed relevant at the corner’s discretion.
“Legal expenses cover provides the policyholder with indemnity for the legal costs of hiring a solicitor to represent them at the inquest, if they have been deemed an interested person”, explains Ian Hollingworth, Head of Legal Expenses at Markel UK. “A solicitor can talk the policyholder through the process, helping them understand their position and how to prepare and submit evidence to the coroner”.
Usually, the coroner will arrange at least one pre-inquest review hearing before the final hearing. At this stage, they’ll deal with practical case-management matters, ensuring that relevant documentation is obtained and witnesses are notified. Although no evidence is heard, legal representation at this stage is important, says Deborah Nicholson, Head of Regulation at Markel Law. “If the coroner has identified you as an interested person, you should be aware of the issues at the earliest possible stage and be sighted on the disclosure as you can ultimately be subject to criticism”, she says.
In situations that may attract press attention, engaging the services of a crisis management consultancy is also worth considering. Some Markel policies include access to the specialist crisis management firm The Counsel House, which can help manage the risk of reputational harm.
The pre-inquest review hearing is also when the coroner will decide the scope of the inquest. “Obviously the coroner is looking to answer the four key questions, but they can set a broad scope that sometimes goes beyond that required for a verdict”, says Nicholson. “One of the reasons it’s helpful for us to be involved at an early stage is that we can try and limit the scope to that which is strictly relevant to the cause of death and ensure the coroner understands the role of the various IPs involved in the deceased’s care”.
If the coroner is made aware of something during the inquest process that could cause other avoidable deaths in the future, they are required to produce a Prevention of Future Deaths report (also known as a Regulation 28 report) and notify any authority able to take action. “As well as generating bad publicity, these reports can be notified to the regulator and cited in subsequent civil or criminal litigation”, explains Nicholson. A legal representative is best placed to advise on whether this is a likely outcome, and how to mitigate your position.
Business as usual?
It's not always necessary to instruct a lawyer, however, says Helen Fagg, Markel’s Head of Insurance Claims. “If your business is running an elderly care home, for example, that will involve deaths, but it doesn’t necessarily mean there will be a liability claim, nor that you’ll necessarily be an interested person at the inquest.”
Insurance coverage varies dependant on the type of cover being purchased. For example, legal expenses cover may respond if a policyholder is named as an interested person, whereas liability insurance responds in the event that the inquest was likely to trigger a claim against the policyholder.
Liability insurers will take a close interest in an inquest if the deceased’s family, friends or representatives express concerns following the death, but often family and friends will have no criticisms at all of the care provided. In situations that are “business as usual” in insurance terms, policyholders should have the confidence to manage the process themselves, says Fagg, perhaps with help behind the scenes from Markel Care Practitioners or the Markel Claims team.
After the main inquest hearing, the coroner will reach a conclusion in either short or narrative form. Short form conclusions include causes of death such as road accidents, industrial disease, or stillbirth, and do not require additional explanation. In more unusual situations, the coroner may issue a narrative conclusion, which will include an explanation of the facts surrounding the death, along with the reasons for their decision.