Law: Face to face with the Coroner

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The Independent Culture
When a loved one dies unexpectedly, the shock and grief may be compounded by having to attend an inquest - and even perhaps having to give evidence. Julia Brosnan offers a guide to the procedure, and advice on how to obtain help.

Earlier this year, my 35-year-old brother collapsed and died. Anyone who has experienced the sudden and unexpected death of a relatively young family member will know what a terrible thing this is. Possibly the last thing such shell-shocked relations need to have to contend with is an arcane and archaic area of the legal system - yet this is the experience of a sizeable number of people called to attend or assist with an inquest.

Inquests are held to investigate the circumstances and determine the causes of sudden or unnatural deaths, which by their nature are often the most traumatic. Like most lay people, I had no idea what to expect. It began when I was requested formally to open the proceedings. I asked the Coroner's Office several times what this entailed, but was simply instructed to turn up. On doing so, my mother and I were alarmed to find ourselves in a court full of people. We not unreasonably took them to be somehow connected with my brother's death, and feared that something terrible had been uncovered. As it turned out, they were merely waiting for another inquest; all I had to do was to take the stand and affirm my brother's identity.

Several months later I received a formal notice to attend the inquest itself, to give evidence. I rang the Coroner's Office to find out how things would be conducted, and what was expected of me. "Oh, there's nothing to worry about," breezed the Coroner's assistant. "I attend them all the time." In order to try to establish whether it was merely a formality or a full-scale investigation, I asked how long it would take. "How long's a piece of string?" he said. And that was that. Unable to believe that this was the only information available, I rang back to ask whether there were any leaflets or other forms of guidance. I was informed that there weren't, and was made to feel slightly barmy for asking,

As the day of the inquest drew nearer, I got increasingly nervous; each time I'd been to the Coroner's Office for administrative purposes, I'd seen groups of weeping relations coming out of the court. Then by chance I bumped into a friend who had recently been to an inquest. She told me that distress is often caused because lurid post-mortem details (weight and size of organs etc) are read out to families who are quite unprepared. This small but critical piece of information made me realise it would not be wise for my mother to attend: she was in poor health, as well as having just lost her only son. Instead I enlisted the support of my partner and two stalwart aunts, having warned them what to expect.

Yet I still felt very much in the dark - I didn't know what I would be asked or who else would be there. Then by good fortune I came across Inquest, an organisation that provides information and support to people going through the inquest system. Founded in 1981 by friends and families of people who had died in custody, it has been involved with many controversial and high-profile inquests. Currently, however, its remit has widened to include those - like myself - who are simply bewildered by the system. It deals with nearly 250 cases a year as well as numerous enquiries.

When I rang the co-director, Helen Shaw, she said that my experience was not uncommon: "This is a relatively obscure and neglected area of the law, and lack of information is the complaint we hear all the time. There is a Home Office leaflet called 'The Work of the Coroner', which explains some background, but we've never come into contact with anybody who's been routinely sent one. Many families end up going to the Citizens' Advice Bureau, but often they don't know. We also see people who've been badly advised by solicitors who don't know either."

She went on to tell me that as the family witness I was likely to be a "properly interested person", and able to question witnesses in court. She also advised me to ask to see witnesses' statements before the hearing and to ask for the post-mortem report to be sent to me (these last two are discretionary, but it's worth asking).

Armed with this information I rang the Coroner's Office again. As soon as I started asking the right questions things started moving. Yes, I was a properly interested person so I could question witnesses in court, and if I arrived an hour before the inquest I could see the statements. The leaflet and the post-mortem report next day.

But perhaps the most helpful information that Inquest gave me was that I could submit a statement to the court. Although the Coroner is under no obligation to admit it as evidence, friends and family can send in information that they think is relevant. This was great news to my mother and me because, like many bereaved families, we had a great emotional investment in the inquest. As well as determining the cause of death there is also a sense in which it sums up the dead person's life, and we wanted some input to make sure that my brother was fairly represented.

On the day the Coroner referred to my statement throughout my evidence and several times remarked on how useful it was. This and the other information from Inquest (which I wouldn't have otherwise known) greatly eased the process. In the event, the Coroner himself was extremely sensitive, and handled the case well.

But the lack of help in the preceding weeks made the whole experience one of the most nerve-wracking I have ever had. The Coroner's Office didn't seem to understand why I wanted information, and gave it only when it was clear that I'd already got some from another source. At one point I felt as if I were going blindfold before a firing squad - open to any possible question or accusation about my family history that anyone could dig up. And this was in a case where the death itself was not controversial.

Helen Shaw thinks that some of these problems are due to the way the Coroner's court is structured: "It's rather out on a limb. It comes under the broad guidelines of The Home Office, is within the Lord Chancellor's Department in terms of the law, and is funded by the local authority," she says. "It's one of those areas that has been untouched for a long time ... in practice what goes on is down to the discretion of individual Coroners and their offices. We think there needs to be more accountability and uniformity, as well as training." She adds that not everyone is as fortunate as me with their Coroner.

A Home Office spokesperson agreed that "more could be done to make the service more responsive to the bereaved" and said that their aim was to develop a "model Coroner's Charter". When this will be is unclear. In the meantime Inquest, which is bringing out an information pack at the end of the year, continues to give the public support and guidance that some might say is really the job of the Home Office.

Inquest is on 0181-802 7430.