What is an inquest?
- It is a fact-finding investigation by a Coroner into the circumstances of a death.
- The Coroner makes a finding on the medical cause of death.
- There is then a brief conclusion as to the cause of death.
There is a set list of “short form” conclusions such as natural causes, accidental death, suicide etc, or the Coroner can briefly describe the circumstances of the death in a “narrative conclusion”. Not all cases need to hear oral evidence from witnesses; some are dealt with based on documents only. For those which do have a hearing these can vary enormously from an hour or two in Court, to very lengthy jury hearings which can last weeks or even months.
Why should insurers be interested?
There is increasing pressure on Coroners to conclude inquests as soon as realistically possible after the death. In the vast majority of cases, this is done within six months. If there is a possible Police investigation or criminal trial then the inquest will be delayed, but otherwise it will take place within a matter of months of the death. In the vast majority of cases, the inquest is heard before any civil trial on liability takes place.
It is increasingly common for lawyers representing the family of the deceased to attend inquests. They do this so they can obtain information on a potential claim and to try to make witnesses accept fault. Even though an inquest is not supposed to be a negligence trial, in practice if a witness accepts that they made a mistake or failed in a duty in some way this is obviously very helpful in a future claim.
Coroner’s courts are not meant to be adversarial (there are no parties as such) and it is up to the Coroner to determine the scope and extent of the inquest, as well as the witnesses to be heard. The whole purpose of the hearing is to find out what happened. Coroners are not allowed to make any findings which would determine liability, but clearly hearing witnesses give evidence on oath is a significant step towards insurers being able to form a view. In rare cases, a Coroner will make a finding of neglect, which is a gross failure to provide basic medical attention to someone in need of it, which is obviously well beyond the test required to establish negligence. In even more serious cases, there can be a conclusion of “unlawful killing” although this remains a rare occurrence.
As a matter of practicality, if a witness has prepared a statement for the Coroner, and given evidence on a point, it will be virtually impossible for that witness to go back on that evidence. This will obviously help insurers determine at an early stage whether there is likely to be a liability for their insured if they have not been able to do so already.
Taking part in an inquest
Although there are no parties, the Coroner can make an individual an “interested person” which then gives that individual or organisation the right to ask questions of other witnesses and have legal representation. If an insured is an interested person or organisation, then the insurer can work with the insured to provide the necessary support and legal representation at the hearing. There is a separate right for the insurer of a life insurance policy of the deceased to be an interested person.
Why are inquests valuable to insurers?
Insurers will wish to know about the circumstances surrounding the death. Inquests offer an opportunity to hear evidence on all of the key issues which are likely to arise in determining liability arising out of any claim following a death. The hearing is likely to take place relatively quickly after the death and the evidence given is likely to be determinative. Even if the insurer cannot directly take part in the proceedings, all inquests are public and simply being present in Court to make a note of the evidence is likely to be an invaluable exercise.