If a person dies and the death cannot be explained, an inquest may be held to establish the facts of the death, such as where and how the death occurred. An inquest is an official, public enquiry, led by the Coroner (and in some cases involving a jury) into the cause of a sudden, unexplained or violent death. An inquest is not usually held if a post-mortem examination of the body can 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 cannot take place until at least six weeks after the death. Witnesses may need to attend the inquest to testify on 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. All depositions, post-mortem reports and verdict records are preserved by the Coroner and made available to the public.
An inquest is usually held in a courthouse, however sometimes a hotel or local hall may also be used. The family of the deceased person is 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 need legal representation on their behalf (for example 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 appropriate notes.
When the proceedings have been completed, a verdict is provided in relation to the identity of the deceased, and how, when and where the death occurred. The range of verdicts that can be declared by the Coroner or jury include:
- Accidental death
- Open verdict
- Natural causes
- Unlawful killing
The coroner or jury may also make a general recommendation, which is designed to prevent similar deaths occurring. After the inquest is completed, the Coroner will issue a certificate so that the death can be properly registered.
If a death is caused by unnatural causes, then an inquest must be held by law.
Jury at an inquest
Under certain circumstances a jury must be present at an inquest. Every person over 21 years of age living within a coroner's district is liable to serve on the jury unless they are exempt. The inquest jury is made up of 6-12 people. A jury can be required at an inquest 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 put member(s) of the public in danger
- 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 from a member of An Garda Síochána. This summons can be served by delivering it to you directly. Alternatively the summons can be delivered to your spouse, child, employee or agent at your last known residence or workplace (providing that this person is over 16 years of age). Failure to attend jury service at an inquest is an offence and you will face penalties.
If the jury at the inquest cannot agree on the cause of death, the Coroner can either accept a majority decision from 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 post-mortem result establishes the medical cause of death.
If you are required to attend an inquest as a witness, you 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 can attend. A report of an inquest may be published in national and local newspapers, but in practice only a minority of inquests are actually reported. Coroners are sensitive to the tragic circumstances that can be 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 minimise the personal intrusion 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 the 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 before the inquest has been held.
If you have been summoned as a witness or jury member for an inquest, you will be notified of the date, time, and venue. If you have any questions about the inquest, contact your local Garda station.
You can get copies of official reports of inquests from the local Coroner's office. To get a report, you will need to write to the Coroner's Office requesting this information and include the name of the deceased, the date of death, the hospital involved (if any) and the date of the inquest (if you know this).