By Gareth Martin, 30th June 2023
Practicing in the Coroner’s Court is unlike any other court, therefore if you are asked to attend inquest proceedings and would like legal advice and assistance, it is important to instruct a lawyer with relevant experience and expertise.
Why is it important to instruct an experienced inquests lawyer?
Inquest proceedings are different for a number of reasons. They are inquisitorial not adversarial; they are not intended to attribute criminal or civil liability, therefore there are no defendants or claimants. The rules of evidence are also very different with relevance being the key consideration. The scope of proceedings is very much at the discretion of the Coroner as they seek to answer the four key questions of who died, where, when and how they died. In Article 2 inquests, the question of how is expanded to look more closely at the circumstances of the death where the deceased has died whilst under the care of the state, for example in prison.
In addition to the legal differences, perhaps the most obvious and indeed significant aspect of inquest proceedings is that every case by its very nature involves a death and as such nearly every case is going to involve a grieving family, which is not something that every lawyer will have dealt with in their career.
In order to ensure that those who undertake work in the Coroner’s Court do so in a way which recognises and meets the particular challenges of the system, the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) in partnership with the Bar Standards Board (BSB) and CileX Regulation have developed a set of competencies to help practitioners better understand the standards expected of those practicing in the area of inquests.
The competency framework has been endorsed by the Chief Coroner for England and Wales, His Honour Judge Teague KC and has received support from the Deputy Chief Coroner and Senior Coroner for Sunderland; the Ministry of Justice; the Coroners’ Court Support Service; the charity INQUEST, as well as solicitors, barristers and members of the public who have been involved in inquests.
What are the competencies expected of lawyers who act in inquests?
- Keeping knowledge and understanding of the jurisdiction and procedure of inquests in the Coroners’ Courts up to date and applying it effectively.
It is perhaps obvious but those practicing in a particular area of law must maintain their legal knowledge in their chosen field in order to provide accurate and appropriate advice and assistance to those they represent. Lawyers must take account of changes to their role, as well as developments in the law and practice.
- Dealing effectively with vulnerable parties.
An inquest is only necessary because someone has died, therefore as noted above, there is very often a grieving family at the centre of every case. Whilst this may represent an obvious vulnerability and require particular care and sensitivity, it is important to remember that people may be vulnerable for very different reasons.
For example, someone may have particular physical or mental health issues or they may be overwhelmed by the process and experience of having to attend an inquest. Lawyers who are representing those involved in an inquest should ensure that their clients understand the process and manage their expectations accordingly but it is equally important to be mindful and considerate of those who may not have the benefit of their own legal advice and assistance.
Being aware of and responding to such issues will ensure that lawyers are able to communicate clearly, professionally and effectively.
- Adapting communication and engagement to the purpose of inquests and the circumstances of the people who are involved.
Bearing in mind that an inquest is an inquisitorial process with the aim of establishing how someone died, lawyers are encouraged to adapt their style of advocacy and personal interactions to the circumstances. This applies both inside and outside the courtroom; lawyers should be respectful and professional at all times.
Those involved in inquests should speak clearly and concisely and avoid legal jargon, especially when dealing with those who may be vulnerable. Questions should be relevant and avoid inappropriate emotional language; they should never be aggressive or hostile, although on occasion robust questioning may be appropriate.
The coroner will inevitably interject if any advocate oversteps the mark, indeed very often the coroner will already have asked the majority of relevant and appropriate questions, which is a point in itself that advocates ought to remember as repeating or rephrasing questions which have already been answered is unnecessary and unwise.
- Being aware of the support offered by other organisations and working with them, where appropriate.
Inquest lawyers should be aware of and understand how key organisations and agencies can assist family members, witnesses and other interested persons.
This includes the Coroner’s Court Support Service which is an independent charity that provides practical and emotional support to those taking part in inquest proceedings. INQUEST is another charity and one with particular expertise in providing support in cases involving state related deaths.
The benefit of signposting and where appropriate engaging with such organisations should not be underestimated because if an interested person or witness receives appropriate emotional support, in addition to relevant legal advice and assistance, they are much more likely to positively engage with the process and in turn give their best possible evidence which is important for all involved.
As you will now no doubt appreciate, the answer to the question posed at the top of this article, “Do I need a specialist lawyer for an inquest?” is almost certainly yes. The team at Olliers have represented interested persons from many different walks of life including families, care home staff, healthcare professionals, police and prison officers. Above all we recognise that inquest proceedings require particular sensitivity and a focused approach; we seek to make an inevitably difficult process that little bit easier to deal with.