Inquests - Giving Evidence

Nature of an inquest

An inquest is an inquiry in public by a Coroner, sitting with or without a jury, into the circumstances surrounding a death.

An inquest is held where the death was sudden, unexplained or violent.

The inquest will establish the identity of the deceased, when, where and how death occurred and the particulars required for death registration.

The purpose of the inquest is not to determine civil or criminal liability. It is to establish the facts surrounding the death and to place those facts on the public record.

A jury is required at an inquest in the following circumstances:

  • Where death may be due to murder, manslaughter or infanticide
  • Where death occurred in prison
  • Where death was caused by accident, poisoning or a disease requiring notification to a government department or inspector
  • Where death resulted from a road traffic accident
  • Where death occurred in circumstances which if they continued or recurred would be prejudicial to the health or safety of the public
  • Where the coroner considers it desirable to hold the inquest with a jury

A verdict will be returned in relation to how the death occurred. The range of verdicts open to the coroner (or jury, if one is present) include:

  • Accidental death
  • Misadventure
  • Suicide
  • Natural causes
  • Unlawful killing
  • Open verdict- meaning that there is insufficient evidence to decide how the death occurred-the matter is left open in the event that further evidence comes to light

Where an inquest is held with a jury it is the members of the jury who return the findings and verdict together with any recommendation designed to prevent a similar death occurring.

Advice to Practitioners

If you are not satisfied as to the cause of death of a patient or believe that a patient may have died as a result of violence or unnatural means, or from any cause other than an illness or disease in respect of which the patient had been treated by a medical practitioner within one month of his death, you are under a duty to report the facts and circumstances of the death to the coroner or to a member of An Garda Síochána not below the rank of sergeant immediately.

You should record the details of the facts and circumstances of the death reported to the Coroner or Sergeant in the patient’s medical records.

In the event of an inquest, you may be asked by the Coroner to prepare a report in respect of the death and you may not be called as a witness. When preparing a report, it is important to review the deceased’s medical records carefully.

If you are called as a witness, you will be required to swear the oath and may be asked to read your report to the court.

Your role as a witness is to provide honest impartial evidence to the court. Your duty is to the Court alone.

If you are not sure of the answer to a question, you should say so. If a question is outside your area of expertise you should explain this to the Court.

If you are asked a question which might incriminate you, you are not obliged to answer it.

Any person who has a proper interest in the inquest may personally examine you or any other witness or be legally represented by a solicitor or a barrister who may do so. The coroner decides who is classified as an “interested person” but such persons may include the following:

  • The family and next-of-kin of the deceased
  • Personal representatives of the deceased
  • Representatives of a board or authority in whose care the deceased was at the time of death e.g. hospital, prison or other institution
  • Those who may have caused death in some way e.g. the driver of a motor vehicle
  • Representative of an insurance company

Questions asked by or on behalf of interested parties such as family members of the deceased may be challenging and confrontational. It is important to remain composed in these circumstances and to remember that a coroner does not have the power to make a finding of clinical negligence.

However there are circumstances in which the phrase “aggravated by lack of care” can be added to the verdict by the coroner. Such a finding could result in a referral of the matter to the medical council by the coroner.

If you are asked to prepare a report for an inquest or are called as a witness at an inquest and you have any concerns you should contact Medisec which can provide you with advice.

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