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The Limited Scope of an Inquest

Posted in [Blog Medical Negligence ] on Wednesday, December 10th, 2014

The death of a loved one is always difficult and distressing and this can be amplified when the death is sudden and the cause of death is unclear.   There are a number of practicalities to be dealt with and in some circumstances, you may be contacted by the Coroner’s office and informed that there will be an Inquest into the death.  At Cantillons Solicitors, we have extensive experience in providing legal representation at Inquests and we set out below some basic information on Inquests.What is an Inquest?An Inquest is an enquiry which is held by the District Coroner or Deputy Coroner to enquire into the circumstances surrounding a death.  An Inquest must be held by law where a death is or may be due to unnatural causes.  Who is the Coroner?The District Coroner and/or Deputy Coroner are appointed as independent office holders with responsibility pursuant to the Coroner’s Acts (as amended) for the medico legal investigation of certain deaths.  A Coroner may be a Barrister or a Solicitor or a Registered Medical Practitioner of at least five years standing.  The Coroner is independent in his or her functions and acts on behalf of the State in the public interest.  Reportable DeathsIn general, any death which is due, directly or indirectly, to an unnatural cause must be reported to the Coroner in the first instance.  In the case of a sudden, unnatural or violent deaths, there is a legal responsibility on a Doctor, Register of Deaths, Funeral Undertaker, householder and every person in charge of a premises in which the deceased person was residing at the time of death to inform the Coroner of the death.  If a death is reported to An Garda Síochána they may notify the Coroner.Some examples of deaths that must be reported to the Coroner are as follows:- Deaths occurring at home or other places of residence where the deceased was not attended by a Doctor during the last illness or where the death was sudden or unexpected. Where the death was as a result of an accident, suicide or homicide. Where the cause of death is unknown or uncertain such as when a patient dies before diagnosis is made and the Doctor is unable to certify the cause. Where the death occurred while a patient was undergoing an operation or under anaesthesia. Where the death occurred during or as a result of any procedure. Where the death occurred in suspicious circumstances. A person dies while in prison. Sudden infant death and certain still births. Where a body is found. Identification of the deceasedThe Gardaí may assist in arranging a formal identification of the body by the member of the family or a relative of the deceased.  An Garda Síochána will then send the Coroner a report in respect of this.  At the Inquest the Gardaí may attend in order to confirm the identification of the deceased.  Post Mortem Examinations A post mortem examination or autopsy will be carried out to clarify the cause of death.  This is a medical examination carried out by a Pathologist.It may be several weeks before the post mortem report is available and if a toxicology or drug screen is required it may take several months before the post mortem report is completed.  The post mortem report, once completed, is forwarded to the Coroner’s Office.The InquestThe Coroner will contact the witnesses to attend the Inquest and decide what order they will give evidence.  In the normal course of events the Coroner will ask the witnesses to submit a written statement prior to the Inquest.  The statements should contain full factual accounts of the information relevant to the Inquest.  For example in respect of a medical practitioner, details of the treatment leading up to the death will be provided.  The Coroner may also request copies of medical records and will be furnished with same directly from the hospitals or doctors that are relevant.  Such records may also be requested by your solicitor.Inquest with or without a JuryA Coroner may hold an Inquest with or without a Jury.  A Jury is required in certain circumstances such as where the death was due to a homicide or occurred in prison or resulted from an accident at work or as a result of a road traffic accident.  It is also necessary to have a Jury where the particular circumstances may reoccur which might be prejudicial to the health and safety of the public.  Where an Inquest is held with a Jury, it is the members of the Jury who determine the verdict and may make recommendations.Evidence at the InquestThe various witnesses attend at the request of the Coroner and their evidence is usually provided in a sequential and logical manner.  Any person who wishes to give evidence is entitled to come forward and should make themselves known to the Coroner as soon as possible. The evidence provided must be relevant to the Inquest otherwise it will not be admitted.The family of the deceased will be informed of the date and place of the Inquest as will all witnesses.  Who can ask questions at the Inquest?The solicitor for  the family of the deceased, representatives of a Hospital in whose care the deceased was at the time of death, those who may have caused the death in some way, and representatives of insurance companies are entitled to ask questions.While examination of the witnesses can be carried out with a view to clearly establishing the facts, any question which directly or indirectly deals with civil or criminal liability will be disallowed by the Coroner.  However, some relevant information may be gained from an Inquest which may be of assistance in carrying out further investigations in respect of civil or criminal liability.Coroner’s verdictThe Coroner is limited in the verdicts that can be returned at an Inquest.  The sole purpose of an Inquest is to ascertain who, when, where and how a death occurred.  It does not examine criminal or civil liability.  Therefore no blame can be attached to any person during the course of the Inquest.  The verdict that will be returned is in relation to the means by which death occurred.  Therefore the type of verdicts open to a Coroner or a Jury are:- Accidental death. Misadventure. Suicide. Open verdict. Natural causes. Unlawful killing. A narrative verdict wherein the medical cause of death as determined by the evidence given at the inquest may be set out in detail.        Post InquestAll inquests are open to the public and as such reporters may be present and the details of the Inquest may be reported in the media.Once an Inquest is finalised a Death Certificate will be issued and can be obtained by the family and the next of kin of the deceased.Furthermore copies of the post mortem report and the depositions taken at the Inquest including a copy of the verdict are available on payment of a fee.  Such documents are available pursuant to the Coroners Act 1962.  Some Coroners also make available audio recordings of the inquest. (Copies of documents and the provision of recordings are made available on payment of prescribed fees.)ConclusionIn our experience, an Inquest may not satisfy or answer many of the questions the family of a deceased person may have.   It can be useful in trying to ascertain some of the medical facts surrounding the death of a person particularly if there is a concern regarding the appropriateness of the treatment received by the deceased but it will not deal with liability.It is important to understand that the purpose of the Inquest is to identify the deceased and how, when and where they passed away.  The Inquest does not include a finding of liability either civilly or criminally on the part of any person.  If you have concerns regarding treatment afforded to a deceased person you should contact our medical negligence team at Cantillons Solicitors at +353 (0)21 -4275673 or if you would like more information.* In contentious business, a solicitor may not calculate fees or other charges as a percentage of any award or settlement. 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