Inquests and inquest reports
An inquest is an official, public enquiry, led by a coroner (and in some cases involving a jury) into the circumstances of a sudden, unexplained or violent death. The coroner, or a jury, can make findings on:
- The identity of the deceased person
- How, when and where the death occurred
- The circumstances surrounding the death
The family of the deceased person is entitled to attend the inquest, but they are not legally obliged to be there. If the family attend the inquest, they do not need legal representation. 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.
An inquest is not usually held if a post-mortem examination of the body can explain the cause of death.
How do inquests work?
When a person dies and the death is sudden, unnatural, violent or unexplained, the death must be reported to the Coroner. The Coroner can arrange for a post-mortem examination of the body, if one has not already been arranged or carried out.
If the post-mortem examination shows that death was due to natural causes, and there is no need for an inquest. The Coroner can issue a Coroner's Certificate to the Registrar of Births and Deaths who will then register the death and issue the death certificate. If the cause of death is unnatural, or other issues surrounding the death are unknown, the Coroner carries out an inquest. If more than one person died in the same incident, the Minister for Justice may decide that only one inquest is needed, and can ask the Coroner in one district to take charge of the inquest for the deceased people who may have lived in other districts.
The Minister can also direct an inquest where the remains of the deceased person have been destroyed or cannot be recovered.
Notifying the family of the deceased
The Coroner must give at least 14 days’ notice of the date that the inquest will take place to:
- Family members of the deceased person
- Witnesses who are required to attend
- Anyone else that the Coroner thinks should be notified of the inquest
What happens if the Gardaí make criminal charges?
A senior Garda can ask the Coroner to adjourn (put on hold) the inquest if criminal charges are being considered or have already been made.
After the criminal charges have been determined, the Coroner may choose to resume the inquest if the Coroner thinks there are special reasons for doing so.
Inquests are in public
All inquests are public and anyone can attend. Reports of an inquest may be published in national and local newspapers, but in practice only a minority of inquests are actually reported. You can get a copy of an inquest report from the Coroner’s Office when the inquest has concluded. See ‘Findings of an inquest’ below.
When is a jury required?
In some circumstances a jury must be present at an inquest. Every citizen over 18 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 is required at an inquest where:
- The death is due to murder, manslaughter or infanticide (when a mother kills her child when the child is less than 12 months old)
- 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 occurred in circumstances, which if they continued or happened again would put member(s) of the public in danger
- The Coroner considers that a jury is necessary
To attend as a juror 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 or by sending to you by registered post. Alternatively the summons can be delivered to a person over 16 years old who lives in your residence. Failure to attend jury service without a reasonable excuse is an offence and you will face penalties.
If the jury as a whole at the inquest cannot agree on its verdict, the Coroner must accept a majority decision from the jury. If there is no majority verdict, the Coroner must discharge the jury and hold a new inquest.
Witness 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 in a logical order to describe the 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.
Findings of an inquest
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.
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
- Natural causes
- Unlawful killing
- Open verdict
An ‘open’ verdict means that the evidence does not fully or clearly explain the cause and circumstances of death. It is most commonly used when none of the other verdicts are appropriate.
The coroner or jury may also make a general recommendation to prevent similar deaths occurring, without deciding whose fault the death was.
After the inquest is completed, the Coroner will issue a certificate so that the death can be properly registered.
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.
The Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission have information on the rights of families at an inquest.
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).