The inquest process during COVID-19 restrictions
An inquest is a fact finding exercise led by a Coroner to enable him or her to find out the answers to four questions:
The answers to these questions are recorded at the end of the inquest on the Record of Inquest. The coroner is not allowed to make any findings about civil or criminal liability of individuals or organisations. However in the course of the inquest the coroner is able to, and often does, explore facts which relate to criminal and civil liability. An inquest may be heard with a jury in certain circumstances.
An interested person is a person or an organisation that has been recognised by the coroner as having specific rights in relation to the inquest. For example, interested persons are entitled to receive disclosure from the coroner of key documents relating to the inquest and they are allowed to ask questions of witnesses at the inquest hearing.
Interested persons tend to fall within the following categories:
It is ultimately up to the coroner to decide whether or not an individual or organisation has ‘sufficient interest’ in order to be named an interested person.
The coroner will ask witnesses to prepare a statement, attend the inquest hearing and answer questions asked by the coroner and any interested persons. The coroner has the power to summons witnesses and so you cannot refuse to attend. If it is very difficult for you to attend an inquest, for example if you are ill or abroad, the coroner may agree that your evidence can be provided in a written statement which is read out to the court.
Being a witness is inevitably a challenging process. If you need advice about what to expect, it would be beneficial to consult a specialist inquest lawyer.
Article 2 inquests are inquests where it is considered by the coroner that the state may have breached its duties under article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights (the right to life). The main difference to a non-article 2 inquest is a legal one: the question of ‘how’ the deceased came about his or her death must be read as meaning ‘by what means and in what circumstances’. In order to answer this question satisfactorily, and ensure that if there have been any article 2 breaches then they are uncovered, the coroner’s investigation is usually broader and more flexible than in a non-article 2 inquest.
Legal aid is generally not available for legal representation at inquests. There is a Legal Help scheme available to families which covers preparatory work associated with an inquest but this does not cover representation at the inquest itself. In order to obtain funding for representation at the inquest hearing, the inquest must be an article 2 inquest or there must be a determination by the Legal Aid Agency that there is a ‘wider public interest’ in providing funding. When applying for legal aid in either of these two scenarios, the applicant must provide extensive information about their financial means which will be taken into account by the Legal Aid Agency when deciding whether or not to require a contribution towards their legal fees. We do not represent legally aided clients in inquests.
To learn more about the inquest process during COVID-19 restrictions, please visit our Coronavirus Inquest FAQs page.
Partner and Head of Department
Inquest proceedings, like other legal proceedings in the UK, have been significantly affected by social distancing restrictions and advice arising from the COVID-19 crisis. This blog looks briefly at the impact of the Coronavirus Act 2020 on proceedings, and examines the Chief Coroner’s guidance notes to coroners working during the crisis.
Inquests are always very sad affairs, and when the court is considering a suicide, it is particularly difficult for the loved ones of the person who has died.
At the end of the inquest in 2014 into the death of Ella Kissi-Debrah, the coroner concluded that this nine year old girl suffered an asthma attack, followed by a seizure, and died after unsuccessful resuscitation. This is one possible answer to the question of how Ella died. However, there is clearly a bigger question which needs to be answered.
As we discussed in our recent blog, some inquests will automatically be designated ‘Article 2 inquests’ if the deceased died whilst under the control of the state. Other inquests will only become Article 2 inquests if there is evidence of systemic failures of processes and systems to protect life. Therefore a case of ordinary medical negligence would not trigger Article 2, as confirmed in Parkinson  4 W.L.R 106.
In June 2018 the government announced that some bereaved families should find it easier to access legal aid funding for representation at inquests. The updated guidance issued by the Lord Chancellor allows caseworkers to waive the financial means test “for cases where the state has a procedural obligation to hold an inquest under Article 2”.
In February 2019 in its Final Report on the Review of Legal Aid for Inquests, the Ministry of Justice confirmed that it would not be introducing automatic public funding for families at inquests where the state is legally represented. This is hugely disappointing news for families, such as the family of PC Palmer, who have experienced the reality of an inquest where the state has the benefit of a highly experienced and well-resourced legal team while they are left to try and find lawyers prepared to represent them for free.
The husband and children of the school teacher, Ann Maguire, who was murdered by a pupil, William Cornick, in her classroom in April 2014 have been unsuccessful in their attempt to appeal against the decision of the High Court to dismiss their claim for judicial review of a decision of the Assistant District Coroner for West Yorkshire.
Today, the Health Secretary announced “a new maternity strategy to reduce the number of stillbirths. This strategy centres on the investigation of still birth deaths by the new Healthcare Safety Investigations Branch but it also included a planned change in the law to allow coroners to investigate full term still birth deaths. Currently there is no requirement for a doctor to refer a still birth death to the local coroner.
In the recently reported case of R (Silvera) v HM Senior Coroner for Oxfordshire  EWHC 2499 (Admin), the Divisional Court looked at the investigative duties placed on the state by Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights and the importance of the coronial process in ensuring that those duties have been met.
The recent decision of Mr Justice Holroyde in R oao Donald Maguire and ors v The Assistant Coroner for West Yorkshire (Eastern Area)  EWHC 2039 provides a salutary reminder of just how difficult it is successfully to judicially review the ‘case management’ decisions of a coroner – in this case a decision as to which witnesses to call at an inquest – and of the costs risks of bringing such a challenge.
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