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Inquests: support for families.

Whatever the circumstances surrounding a bereavement, even if the death is expected, there are always feelings of shock and distress for those who are left behind. However, for families facing the sudden death of a loved one, those feelings of shock can make it extremely difficult to deal with official inquiries or the inquests that inevitably arise.

This article aims to provide some insight into what families might expect in relation to investigations and the inquest depending on the circumstances of the death.

Fatal road traffic accidents

Following a road death, the police will launch an investigation into the circumstances of the accident. As part of their handling of the investigations they will also allocate a Family Liaison Officer to support those affected. This person will be vital in communicating key information to family members as the investigation unfolds.

However, they can also assist with practical things such as arranging for relatives and friends to visit the scene to place flowers. If there is media interest around the accident, the police can provide support to families should they wish to issue a statement or speak directly with the press. If the family have a legal team in place, then media liaison is something that they can also help with. It’s important that whatever is said to the press doesn’t negatively impact on the criminal or civil proceedings arising out of the accident.

Once the Coroner has been notified of the death, and the body of the deceased examined, the family are free to arrange the funeral. The Coroner will release a date for the Inquest once the police investigations are complete. It is not uncommon for there to be around a 4 month wait before an Inquest takes place; in more complex accidents this wait can be even longer. The Coroners office are generally really good at handling queries and keeping families informed of progress.

Fatal accidents at work

Workplace deaths commonly involve motor vehicle accidents; falls or slips; being struck by objects; exposure to harmful chemicals or materials; and suicide. Accidents at work are classified as fatal if they “lead to the death of a person within one year of the accident taking place”. According to data released by the HSE, during 2018/2019 construction and agriculture sector account for the largest number of fatalities and 95% of worker fatalities were male.

All fatal workplace accidents are initial investigated by the police to see if there is any criminal culpability – such as corporate manslaughter or gross negligence manslaughter. If no criminal offence has been committed, then the police will hand over the investigation to the HSE (Health and Safety Executive).

The HSE have a range of powers to investigate and prosecute any regulatory offences committed by an organisation or individuals. It is usually the case that an inquest takes place before the HSE decide whether to prosecute. This is because evidence heard during an inquest can be used as part of a subsequent prosecution and it is useful to see what this is before embarking on it.

It’s worth noting that where the death was caused by an accident in the workplace, then the Coroner is obliged to call a jury to hear the inquest evidence. It falls to the jury to determine what’s called the ‘Conclusion’ at the end of the inquest once the evidence has been heard. They must decide who the deceased was and where, when and how the deceased came by his or her death.

Death whilst abroad

If someone dies abroad then the death must be registered according to the regulations of the country where the death occurred. Families should also register the death with the British Consul in that country so that they receive a consulate death certificate and a record will then be kept in the UK.

In practical terms, the body can be repatriated to the UK for burial or cremation if the family so wish it. If a loved one has died whilst working abroad their employer should meet the cost if this. If not, most travel insurance policies will meet the cost of repatriation.

Some families choose to have the body cremated in the country where the death occurred, before bringing the ashes home. In order to bring ashes home it is necessary to show (and travel with) the death certificate and certificate of cremation.

Once the body is home, the death certificate should be taken to the register office in the area where the funeral is taking place. A coroner will hold an inquest if the cause of death is unknown or it is was sudden, violent or unnatural.

In order to do this, the coroner will be reliant on gathering investigation and autopsy reports, witness statements and other evidence originating from the country of death. This can, sadly, lead to lengthy delays for the family in getting a date for the inquest hearing.

Death due to negligence whilst under the care of others

Deaths arising from negligence in care homes, hospitals, prisons and other establishments will trigger a significant investigation and, at an early stage, the involvement of lawyers representing the organisations involved. Those involved will be keen to learn from an Inquest the exact circumstances leading up to death and whether standards of care or other duties may have been breached. This is because if substandard care caused or led to a person’s death, then the family of the deceased may have a Fatal Accident compensation claim.

Instructing a solicitor for an inquest hearing

It is advisable for families to seek legal advice and representation in cases where the negligence of others may have caused or contributed to the death. We have written an article on the cost of legal representation at Inquests which contains more information.

There are some charities who provide support for families who are facing an inquest: The Coroners’ Courts Support Service (CCSS) is an independent voluntary organisation who provide practical help to bereaved families, witnesses and others attending an Inquest.

If a person has died in state care or detention in England or Wales, help might be available from Inquest – a charity who provide free and independent advice to bereaved people. They specialise in tackling wider issues of state and corporate accountability, such as public disasters like Grenfell Tower and Hillsborough.

 

If you need help and advice concerning the death of a loved one, please get in touch to see how we can help. Telephone Simon Bransby on 01603 877000 or email info@m-j-p.co.uk.

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