An inquest is an inquiry held in public by a Coroner, sometimes with a jury.
In some deaths, inquests are legally required. In other cases, the holding of an inquest is at the discretion of the Coroner and the next-of-kin can make their views known to the Coroner, if they so wish.
A jury is required in the following circumstances;
- Where death may be due to homicide (or a suspicious death);
- Where death occurred in prison;
- Where death was caused by accident, poisoning or disease requiring notification to be given to a Government Department or inspector;
- Where death occurred in circumstances which may be prejudicial to the health or safety of the public;
- Where the Coroner considers it desirable to hold an inquest with a jury.
Where an inquest is held with a jury, it is the jury-members (not the Coroner) who return the findings and verdict together with any rider or recommendation.
Most deaths reported to Coroners do not require an inquest. The purpose of the inquest is:-
- To establish the facts surrounding the death;
- To place those facts on the public record; and
- To make findings on:
(a) the identification of the deceased
(b) the date and place of death, and
(c) the cause of death.
While the Coroner or jury may make a general recommendation designed to prevent similar deaths, they do not decide whose fault it was or whether there was a criminal offence.
Notice of an Inquest
The next-of-kin will be informed of the date and place of the inquest. The Coroner will decide on the witnesses to be called, however if next-of-kin have information which may be helpful at the inquest, they should communicate this to the Coroner (or Gardaí) as soon as possible.
Usually a Coroner will explain the process before the inquest begins. Witnesses will be called in logical sequence and give evidence under oath. The Coroner will usually also give an opportunity to anyone who wants to withdraw during the evidence of the post mortem examination to do so and to return later.
Sometimes inquests have to be adjourned, for instance, if there is an ongoing investigation by the Gardaí. These investigations and any resulting criminal proceedings must be completed before the inquest proceeds. Adjournments can also occur if there is any other ongoing investigation by any other statutory agency, e.g., the Garda Ombudsman, the Air Accident Investigation Unit etc.
Who can ask questions at an inquest?
The Coroner determines who can ask questions at inquest but usually anyone who has a proper interest in the inquest (a properly interested person) may personally examine a witness or be legally represented by a solicitor or barrister. A family do not require legal representation on their behalf but sometimes if a legal action is being taken as a result of the death, the family may decide to engage legal representation to attend an inquest.
Properly interested persons include:
- the next-of-kin of the deceased;
- personal representatives of the deceased;
- representatives of a board or authority in whose care the deceased was at the time of death e.g. hospital, prison or other institution;
- driver of a motor vehicle involved in a fatal collision;
- representatives of insurance companies and:
(where death resulted from an accident at work)
- representatives of trade unions;
- employer of the deceased;
- inspector of the Health & Safety Authority.
Will the report of the Inquest be reported in the Media?
All inquests are held in public and reporters may be present. In practice, a minority of inquests are reported on. The Coroner is aware of the sometimes tragic circumstances and will endeavour to treat each case sympathetically. Every attempt is made to ensure that inquest proceedings are not unduly intrusive on families concerned. A useful website is www.pressombudsman.ie.
A verdict will be returned in relation to the means by which death occurred. The range of verdicts open to a Coroner or jury include accidental death; misadventure; suicide; open verdict; natural causes (if so found at inquest) and in certain circumstances, unlawful killing.