What are inquests and when are they required?
If your loved one has died after receiving substandard medical care, an Inquest is likely to be heard before an independent Coroner to enable him to investigate what happened and find out the cause of their death. The Inquest may provide further evidence to help with your claim for compensation, too.
As of 1 October 2019, The Notification of Deaths Regulations 2019 place a legal duty on all medical practitioners who come to know of a reportable death to ensure it has been directly reported to a Coroner.
Understandably, the idea of an Inquest can be unfamiliar and confusing, especially whilst trying to come to terms with the sudden loss of a loved one when the cause of their death is unclear or unknown.
An Inquest is very different to a Court hearing. It is inquisitorial in nature and does not seek to apportion blame. This means that the Coroner acts as a fact-finder and leads the hearing with a view to finding out the following information:-
- Who the deceased was;
- Where they died;
- When they died; and
- How they came by their death.
The final question is crucial in a clinical negligence claim, as it must be proven that the substandard medical care received caused or materially contributed to the death.
Generally, inquests are held in open Court meaning that the public and media may attend.
Several parties may be called to give evidence to assist the Coroner in coming to a verdict. In medical negligence cases, this is likely to be a member of the deceased’s family and also the pathologist who conducted the post-mortem examination to explain the likely cause of death. Other witnesses may also be called to attend, including staff at the hospital where the deceased was receiving treatment, as well as medical experts if necessary.
At the conclusion of the Inquest, the Coroner decides a verdict, which answers the 4 questions above.
The Coroner may decide that the deceased died of natural causes, through an accident, through misadventure (which is very similar to an accidental death) or neglect. Alternatively, the Coroner may deliver an open verdict which is given where he cannot determine the cause of death or a narrative conclusion which explains the facts surrounding the death in more detail.
It may also be the case that an Inquest identifies mistakes that were made to enable lessons to be learned and the Coroner may send a letter notifying an Institution of the changes they need to make. However, as stated above, it is not the Coroner’s responsibility to apportion blame in any criminal or civil matter.
Most families attend Inquests without legal representation. Unfortunately, it has been said that there is an “inequality of arms” at play when bereaved families try to obtain funding for representation at Inquest. It is currently the case that state bodies such as the NHS can afford to spend thousands of pounds for legal representation, compared to many families who cannot.
However, it is possible to obtain representation through a Solicitor or Barrister at Inquest and this is often important where the circumstances are complex. The role of the legal professional is to question witnesses and experts to assist the fact-finding process, to decide whether or not there is a medical negligence case to pursue and to understand whether more could have been done to prevent the death.
Obtaining funding for the preparation for and representation at an Inquest can be very difficult for bereaved families, and only in exceptional cases will funding be available from the Legal Aid Agency. For example, in 2018, out of more than 600 requests for legal aid at Inquest, almost half were refused.
However, if you are faced with having to attend an Inquest, it is worth checking whether you have Legal Expenses Insurance. This is Insurance which may be attached to your home insurance policy and which may cover funding.
In the alternative, preparation for and representation at Inquest may be funded privately or through a Conditional Fee Agreement (commonly known as a ‘No Win, No Fee Agreement’) if a case in negligence is brought after the Inquest. This is something which must be agreed with the Solicitor and/or Barrister prior to any work for an Inquest being done.
It is important to speak with a Solicitor promptly, as there are strict time limits which apply to clinical negligence claims. If you are facing the prospect of attending an Inquest following the death of a loved one in hospital, please get in touch with our team for advice on 0114 218 4000.