The inquest process during COVID-19 restrictions
An inquest is a fact finding exercise carried out by the coroner following a death. The role of the coroner is to ascertain who has died, where, when and how. An inquest only happens in very specific circumstances when it is determined by the coroner or the law that an investigation is necessary.
If you are involved in an inquest you can find more information about the inquest process on our Inquests page.
A coroner can only open an investigation where he or she has a reason to suspect that the cause of death was unknown, the death happened in state custody or the death was violent or unnatural. Where someone has died from coronavirus it is unlikely that a coroner will initiate an inquest other than in very specific circumstances.
The Chief Coroner announced early on that COVID-19 related fatalities were to be considered a ‘natural death.’ This means that unless a COVID-19 related death occurred in state custody, the coroner would have to identify some unnatural element which contributed to the death for an inquest to be opened.
Where human neglect contributed to a natural death, the death might then be considered unnatural. It could be argued that human failings in response to dealing with the pandemic contributed to certain deaths and these were therefore unnatural deaths. This might be the case where, for example, the death was a result of inadequate medical equipment to deal with the illness. It is likely that medical professionals will refute such allegations, pointing to systemic failings which are not to be addressed at inquests.
There is an obligation to report a death to the coroner where someone has died from a disease contracted by reason of their work. If the coroner suspects that someone was infected as a result of their duties as an employee, the coroner should initiate an investigation. Bus drivers, NHS staff and social workers are examples of employees who may have been exposed to COVID-19 through their workplace.
Normally an inquest hearing is within 6 months of the death being investigated. However this timeframe is likely to be extended due to pressure on the system and where adjournments are necessary as a direct result of restrictions arising from COVID-19.
For more information on the conduct of inquests during the pandemic, please see our blog The inquest process during COVID-19 restrictions.
At the conclusion of the inquest, the coroner will give a verdict on where, when and how the deceased died. In relation to ‘how’ someone died, the possible outcomes include neglect, accident, suicide, natural causes, an open conclusion (where there is not enough evidence to reach a conclusion) and a narrative verdict (where a more expansive conclusion is given to explain the issues raised).
Whilst this helps to explain the medical cause of someone’s death, the explanation about the circumstances which led to the death might be limited. The Chief Coroner has made it clear in published guidance that an inquest is not the appropriate forum for addressing government or public policy in relation to COVID-19. Where there have been systemic failings by state bodies, which could be particularly relevant in the wake of COVID-19, a public inquiry is usually considered a more appropriate to address the alleged failures. In this situation an inquest might be suspended whilst a public inquiry is carried out.
An article 2 inquest relates to the investigation of a death which is believed to have resulted from a failure of the state to protect the deceased’s life. If the deceased was in state care or under the responsibility of healthcare professionals this category of inquest might be relevant. The government has an obligation to take appropriate measures to safeguard lives and where there is a failing in this respect, it can be addressed in what is known as an article 2 inquest. For more information look at our previous blog on article 2 inquests What is an 'Article 2 inquest' and why does it matter?. Alternatively, in order to satisfy its obligations under article 2, the government can initiate a public inquiry.
Both a public inquiry and an inquest can be used to look into the reasons behind a death occurring at the hands of the state. However, with respect to deaths due to COVID-19, a public inquiry tends to deal with broader failings and lessons to be learnt from these failings, rather than separate fatalities.
A public inquiry is called when there are particular events which are a matter of public concern. Only a government minister can call an inquiry, which is then facilitated by a balanced panel of people with appropriate expertise. An inquiry is concluded with the publication of a report which goes before Parliament. Examples of previous inquiries include those looking into the Grenfell Tower tragedy. To find out more about public inquiries please see our Public Inquiries FAQs.
It is expected that a public inquiry will be held with respect to COVID-19. An inquest could be suspended for the duration of a public inquiry.
Inquests are not permitted to determine blame and the verdict will not identify someone as having criminal or civil liability. If there is a question of blame, this will be for the criminal or civil courts to decide and will require separate legal action. Evidence that is gathered in the course of an inquest from disclosure or witness evidence can be used and is often crucial for the success of any civil claims or prosecutions.
If the coroner concludes that something could be done to prevent future deaths, they are obliged to produce a “Prevention of Future Death Report” which is sent to relevant organisations.
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