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Inquests

 

What is an Inquest?

An inquest is an inquiry in public by a Coroner, sitting with or without a jury into the circumstances surrounding a death. An inquest must be held by law when a death is due to unnatural causes. The inquest will establish the identity of the deceased, how, when and where the death occurred and the particulars which are required to be registered by the Registrar of Deaths. Questions of civil or criminal liability cannot be considered or investigated at an inquest and no person can be exonerated. The purpose of the inquest therefore is to establish the facts surrounding the death and to place those facts on the public record and to make findings on the identification of the deceased, the date and place of death and the cause of death. A verdict will be returned in relation to the means by which the death occurred. The range of verdicts open to Coroner or jury include accidental death, misadventure, suicide, open verdict, natural causes (if so found at inquest) and in certain circumstances, unlawful killing.

Can funeral arrangements be made before an inquest is held?

If an inquest is to be held, the Coroner is usually able to allow burial or cremation once the post-mortem examination of the body has been completed (see note 7 above). Certain documents will be issued by the Coroner where a body is to be cremated or removed out of the country (see also note 12).

 

When will the inquest be held?

Before an inquest can be held, the final report from the pathologist (including any specialized tests) must be received by the Coroner. In addition the inquest file which includes all of the draft depositions of potential witnesses and other information must be complete. Adequate notification must then be given to the family, witnesses and all who have a proper interest in the inquest. It is therefore usually a minimum of five months from the date of death before an inquest is held. In circumstances where the investigation is more complex or where there is a parallel criminal investigation by the Gardai, or where criminal proceedings may be contemplated, then it may be between six and twelve months from the date of death to inquest hearing. Information about the approximate date of inquest can be obtained from the Coroner's Office.

 

When is a jury necessary at an Inquest?

A jury is required in the following circumstances:

  • Where the death was due to murder, manslaughter or infanticide;
  • The death occurred in prison;
  • The death was caused by accident, poisoning or disease requiring notification to be given to a government department or inspector;
  • The death resulted from a road traffic accident;
  • The death incurred in circumstances the continuance or possible recurrence of which would be prejudicial to the health or safety of the public or any section of the public;
  • Where the Coroner considers it desirable to empanel a jury.

Where an inquest is held with a jury it is the members of the jury (not the Coroner) who return the findings and verdict.

Who gives evidence at an inquest?

The Coroner will decide which witnesses should attend and in what order they will be required to give evidence. The evidence will be presented in a manner so as to provide a logical sequence in relation to the circumstances surrounding the death. The autopsy report will establish the medical cause of death. Some family members may prefer not to hear details of the post-mortem examination. The Coroner will indicate when the autopsy report is to be taken so that such persons may withdraw and return later during the inquest. Any person who wishes to give evidence is entitled to come forward at the inquest but the evidence tendered must be relevant to the purpose of the inquest. A person wishing to give evidence at an inquest should make this fact known to the Coroner as soon as possible.

 

Who can ask questions at an inquest?

Any person who has a proper interest in the inquest (a properly interested person) may personally examine a witness or may be legally represented by a solicitor or barrister.

 

Properly interested persons include:

  • The family and 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;
  • Those factually responsible for the death in some way e.g. driver of a motor vehicle;
  • Representatives of insurance companies.

(Where death resulted from an accident at work)

  • Representatives of trade unions;
  • An employer of the deceased;
  • An inspector of the Health and Safety Authority.
  • Others at the discretion of the Coroner

Properly interested persons at an inquest are entitled to be legally represented. Legal representation is not mandatory, but such persons may wish to instruct solicitors in certain circumstances. Civil Legal Aid may be available for certain categories of inquests and further information should be obtained from the Legal Aid Board.

It is helpful if solicitors notify the Coroner prior to the inquest that they have been so instructed.

Can a report of an Inquest be obtained?

Depositions taken at inquest including a copy of the verdict are available from the Coroner's office on payment of the statutory fee, once the inquest has concluded. It should be noted that the inquest papers are not generally available prior to the inquest being held.

 

Will the Inquest be reported in the newspaper?

All inquests are held in public and reporters may be present. In practice a minority of inquests are reported. The Coroner is aware of the tragic circumstances and will endeavor to treat each one sympathetically. The existence of suicide notes will be acknowledged but the contents will not be read out, except at the specific request of the next-of-kin and then only at the discretion of the Coroner. Every attempt is made to ensure that the inquest proceedings are not unduly intrusive on families concerned.