An inquest is an official, public enquiry, presided over by the Coroner (and in some cases involving a jury) into the cause of a sudden, unexplained or violent death. If a death cannot be explained, an inquest may be held to establish the facts of the death, such as where and how death occurred. An inquest would not normally be held if a post-mortem examination of the body could explain the cause of death. Section 17 of the Coroners Act 1962 makes provision in law for the holding of an inquest into a death.
The inquest will not take place until at least 6 weeks after the death. Witnesses may be required to attend the inquest to give testimony on oath regarding the circumstances and cause of the death. When a jury is present at an inquest, it is the jury rather than the Coroner who delivers the verdict. Jury service at an inquest is obligatory and a majority verdict is used to reach a verdict. Nobody is found guilty or innocent at an inquest and no criminal or civil liability is determined. There are no "parties" and all depositions, postmortem reports and verdict records are preserved by the Coroner and are made available to the public.
An inquest is usually held in a courthouse, however, hotels or local halls may also be used. The family of the deceased are entitled to attend the inquest, but they are not bound by law or legally obliged to be there. If the family attend the inquest, they do not require legal representation on their behalf (that is, a solicitor or legal adviser). Sometimes however, if legal action is being taken as a result of the death, the family may engage a solicitor to attend the inquest and take notes.
When the proceedings have been completed, a verdict is returned in relation to the identity of the deceased, and how, when and where the death occurred. The range of verdicts open to the Coroner or jury (in jury cases, it is the jury that returns the verdict) include accidental death, misadventure, suicide, open verdict, natural causes and unlawful killing.
A general recommendation designed to prevent similar deaths occurring may be made by the coroner or jury. When the inquest is completed, the Coroner issues a certificate so that the death can be properly registered.
If a death is due to unnatural causes, then an inquest must be held by law.
Jury at an inquest
In certain circumstances, a jury must be present at an inquest. Every person over the age of twenty-one years residing within a coroner's district is liable to serve on the jury at any inquest held within that district unless they are exempt. The inquest jury must consist of at least 6 people (and not more than 12 people). Circumstances where a jury is required at an inquest include where:
- The death is due to murder, manslaughter or infanticide
- The death took place in prison
- The death was caused an accident, poisoning or a disease requiring notification to a government department or inspector
- The death was caused by a road traffic accident
- The death occurred in circumstances, which if they continued or recurred would endanger the health or safety of a member(s) of the public
- The Coroner considers that a jury is necessary.
To attend as either a juror or witness at an inquest, you will receive a summons served by a member of the Garda Síochána. This summons can be served on you in a number of ways, for example, by delivering it to you directly or leaving the summons with your spouse, child, employee or agent at your last known residence or workplace as long as that person is not under 16 years of age. Failure to attend at jury service at an inquest is an offence and you will face penalties.
If the jury at the inquest fail to agree on the cause of death, the Coroner can either accept the majority decision of the jury or if the decision is tied, discharge the jury and hold a new inquest.
Witnesses at an inquest
The Coroner decides which witnesses should give evidence at the inquest and the order in which they should give their evidence. Evidence must be presented so as to provide a logical sequence of the circumstances surrounding the death. The postmortem result establishes the medical cause of death.
Witnesses who are required to attend an inquest can claim for loss of earnings and expenses. The rates for fees and expenses are set by statutory instrument.
Public attendance at an inquest
All inquests are conducted in public and anyone may attend. Reports of inquests may be carried in national and local newspapers but in practice only a minority of inquests are actually reported. Coroners in Ireland are very much aware of the tragic circumstances often involved in inquests and will try to treat each inquest sympathetically. If there is a suicide note, its existence will be acknowledged. At the discretion of the Coroner, its contents may be read out in public. Every attempt is made to ensure that the inquest proceedings are not unduly intrusive on families and friends concerned.
Official reports of inquests
As inquests are public enquiries, it is possible to obtain a copy of the post-mortem report and any depositions taken at inquest, including a copy of the verdict. These official reports are only available after the inquest has concluded. There is a small fee for these documents. Inquest papers are not available prior to the inquest being held.
How to apply
If you have been summoned as a witness or jury member for an inquest, you will be notified to the date, time, venue of the inquest. If you have any questions about the inquest, contact your local Garda station.
Copies of official reports of inquests are available from the local Coroner's office. To obtain a report, you will need to write to the Coroner's Office requesting this information and including the name of the deceased, the date of death, the hospital involved (if any) and the date of the inquest (if you have this information).