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Attending a coroner’s inquest is never easy. But knowing what to expect before you go will at least give you a clearer idea of how to prepare yourself and what support you might need. Here we’ll take you through what’s involved in a coroner’s inquest and what practical steps you can take to get through the process.

What is a coroner’s inquest? 

A coroner’s inquest is an investigation into how a person died. It usually takes place after a post-mortem when, even after the examination, the cause of death hasn’t been found. The inquest is a formal investigation into the cause of death and is used to figure out who where, when and how the person passed away. 


Why would a coroner request an inquest? 

A coroner might hold an inquest after a post-mortem because even after the exam, there is still no clear cause of death. But it’s also necessary for a coroner’s inquest to go ahead when: 

  • The person died in prison or in police custody 
  • The person died a violent or unnatural death 
  • The person died of natural causes, but it’s considered to be in the public’s interest 
  • A medical procedure may have contributed to the person’s death


What is the purpose of a coroner’s inquest? 

The purpose of an inquest is to make sure that the person who died is identified correctly. It’s also to figure out the cause of death so that the death can be recorded. This means that the body can then be released for either burial or cremation. 


What to expect at a coroner’s inquest 

Even though a coroner’s inquest takes place in a courtroom it’s not as formal as a trial. And it’s not the coroner’s responsibility to blame anyone for causing the person’s death. Instead, they’re responsible for recording the facts to understand how the person died. Witnesses can be invited to talk about the circumstances of the death. This could include people like the doctors who treated the person who died, or police officers who attended. Family members might be called to read out their statements and answer questions too. The witnesses can be represented by lawyers if they wish.


What happens at a coroner’s inquest? 

Here’s what happens when a coroner opens an inquest: 

  • Following a post-mortem, the coroner will decide if a criminal investigation is needed.  
  • If a criminal investigation is needed the coroner will notify the police so that they can work together to confirm the cause of death and, if needed, prosecute anyone involved. The coroner’s inquest may be stopped so that there is only one court looking at the evidence. 
  • If there’s no need for a criminal investigation the coroner will call for evidence. 
  • If necessary, the coroner will hold a pre-inquest review to discuss evidence and identify witnesses with family members.  
  • Once all investigations are complete a date will be set for the inquest hearing and witnesses will be invited to give evidence and answer questions. 
  • The inquest hearing will take place and the coroner will give their conclusions. 
  • The coroner will follow up with the necessary paperwork so that the death can be registered. 
  • If any of the issues involved are more complicated some of the steps above will be repeated. 


Coroner’s inquest conclusions: what to expect 

Here’s a list of the possible conclusions that the coroner will come to following the hearing:  

  • Natural causes 
  • Accident 
  • Suicide 
  • Unlawful killing 
  • Alcohol 
  • Drug related 
  • Industrial disease 
  • Road traffic collision 
  • Neglect 
  • Narrative – this is when the coroner gives a factual description of how the person died 
  • Open – this is when there isn’t enough evidence to understand the cause of death, so the case is left open in case any other evidence is found.

It’s possible that the coroner may also use a combination of conclusions from the list above to describe the cause of death. And if they think that the death could have been prevented, then they might inform the relevant authority, for example, the Health and Safety Executive. This is so that any deaths of a similar nature can be prevented in the future.


Can you register the death while the inquest is going on? 

Instead of registering the death you’ll need to get an interim death certificate (also known as a certificate of the fact of death) from the coroner while the inquest is going on. You can use this to notify your local registrar about the death.  

You won’t receive the death certificate until after the inquest. But you can use the interim death certificate to apply for probate and contact other organisations about the death. You might also be able to use the government’s Tell Us Once Service if it’s available at your local register office. 

Once the inquest is over the coroner will update the registrar and confirm the cause of death. The death will be registered and you can get a copy of the death certificate.


How long does a coroner’s inquest take? 

Most coroner’s inquests should take place within 6 months of the death of the person. But they can take longer. This is because different coroner’s offices across the UK have different waiting times. The time it takes can also depend on how complicated the case is.


Will a coroner’s inquest delay the funeral? 

No, the inquest shouldn’t delay the funeral. You can start making funeral arrangements once the coroner tells you that the post-mortem is complete. But it’s sensible to hold off on making any plans until you get a release date for the body just in case any delays come up.


Can anyone go to a coroner’s inquest? 

Yes, coroner’s inquests are public investigations. So anyone can attend the hearing. And the media can also attend. But only people relevant to the case can take part in the hearing.


How to prepare yourself for a coroner’s inquest 

Attending a coroner’s inquest as a bereaved family member isn’t easy. It’s okay if it’s an emotional time for you and you need support to get through it. Here are a few things to consider that might help you through the process: 

  • While the investigation is ongoing you can expect updates from the coroner’s office at least once every 3 months. If you don’t hear from them in good time, you can contact them yourself for more information.  
  • If you have any questions or concerns that you would like the coroner to be aware of before the hearing, write to them in advance. This will help them to look at all the issues you’re concerned about in detail. 
  • Request any relevant documents from the coroner ahead of the inquest so that you aren’t taken aback by any of the info you find at the hearing. Keep in mind that some of the information may be upsetting. 
  • Depending on the circumstances of the death the press might attend the inquest. Remember that you don’t have to talk to them if you don’t want to. Or if you want you can gather your thoughts some time after the hearing and talk to them at a later date instead. It’s completely your choice. 
  • Ask for help. Ask someone to be there for you before, during and after the hearing. It may help you to know that you can lean on someone at a stressful time. 


Get help from the Coroners’ Courts Support Service  

If you’re struggling to cope with attending the hearing or any part of the process, get in touch with the Coroners’ Courts Support Service. Their volunteers help bereaved family members and witnesses with the practical and emotional parts of being involved with an inquest. They may even be able to attend the hearing with you to provide support. 

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