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Inquests and Fatal Accident Claims

Specialists in Fatal Accident Compensation and Inquests

Our Fatal Accident Claim Solicitors offer an Inquest advice and representation service throughout Wiltshire, Hampshire, Somerset, Berkshire and Dorset to families who have suffered bereavement in circumstances where the Coroner feels it is necessary to have an Inquest. This is usually where the cause of death is sudden, violent or unknown.

What is an Inquest?

An inquest is an investigation into the circumstances of a person’s death where they died an “un-natural or unexplained” death or a death in prison. It is presided over by a Coroner

The purpose of an inquest is to establish the cause of death and the circumstances which led to the death. An inquest never determines blame.

Why use our service

We are one of only 15 law firms nationwide on the specialist AVMA (Action against Medical Accidents) Inquest Legal Services Panel.

We provide a complete service from initial advice through the representation at the hearing itself, to include representation at the Hearing by a solicitor or a barrister, dealing with all types of fatal accident. Our solicitors have particular experience of:

  • Fatal accident Inquests
  • Hospital death Inquests
  • Nursing home death Inquests
  • Medical mistake death Inquests

In rare circumstances Public Funding (legal aid) can be available to pay for representation by a solicitor at an Inquest.

If appropriate, our specialist solicitors can also advise in relation to any accident compensation claim arising out of a fatal accident.

When does an inquest take place?

  • When does the Coroner first become involved?

If a death has been in unexpected or suspicious circumstances the case may be referred to a Coroner.  Referral to a Coroner can be made by relatives of the deceased, a medical practitioner, a police officer etc.  The family are usually told that this has been done but in fact there is no legal requirement to tell the family.

  • When can a Coroner order that a post mortem takes place?

A post mortem is a detailed medical examination by a Consultant Pathologist which will help to establish the reason why the person dies.  Most large hospitals employ pathologists who can do this type of work.

Relatives always have to be told by the Coroner is there is to be a post mortem.  The family also have to be told when the post mortem will take place.  In very suspicious deaths sometimes the family will want to instruct an Independent Pathologist to carry out an independent post mortem at the same time as the Pathologist appointed by the Coroner carries out his examination.

On some occasions parts of the post mortem are carried out by doctors from other hospitals.  For example, this is very common in cases involving a brain injury where samples of tissue are sent to a pathologist specialising in brain injuries for examination.  Some families find the thought of this very distressing and a Coroner will only do this if he thinks it is absolutely necessary.

  • Can I refuse to allow a post mortem to take place?

No. It is not possible for a family to refuse to allow a post mortem to be carried out on their relative, even on religious grounds.

Why does the Coroner decide to call an Inquest?

Generally when a person dies the Coroner is not involved and the family are free to arrange a funeral and deal with the grieving process that inevitably follows a person’s death.

However, if the death is unexpected or the deceased dies in unusual circumstances then the Coroner may become involved.  Examples of occasions when the Coroner will become involved are:

(a)                 where the death has been violent or unnatural

(b)                 where the death was sudden and unexpected

(c)                 where a person has died in prison or police custody

There are other reasons to hold an Inquest but these are the most common.

The Coroner will wait until he has the result of the post mortem before he decides whether to call an Inquest.  In some circumstances the post mortem result will come in and it will have been found that the deceased died of natural causes and no further investigation is necessary. In this case the Coroner will allow the death certificate to be issued and the family can then arrange the funeral in the usual way.

If the Coroner decides that an Inquest should be held he will issue a temporary Death Certificate allowing the funeral to take place but the death certificate will not contain a cause of death.  A full death certificate stating the cause of death will be issued after the Inquest.

What happens at an Inquest Hearing?

The Coroner will hear evidence from people who were involved with the deceased before he or she died – for example, doctors treating him, family members any witnesses. The Coroner will then use this evidence to try to answer the four questions above

An Inquest is an official court hearing and the Coroner has the same status as a Judge.  The Coroner’s Court is supposed to be set up to allow families to represent themselves. They are usually informal.

Inquests are held in a variety of places; some are held in Courts, some in meeting rooms and some in police stations.  Often in depends which venue is free at the time and how many witnesses will need to be called.

We find that families generally will want to attend.

  • Is an Inquest like a Court Trial?

No, it is an inquisition, a fact finding hearing to try to establish facts to answer the above questions. There are not two parties trying to prove a case.

Before the Inquest takes place the Coroner’s officers would have helped the Coroner prepare the case.  They will have interviewed any witnesses [for example, doctors treating him and family members] and obtained any medical or forensic evidence that the Coroner requires.

The Coroner’s officer is likely to be your main contact throughout the process and they will be trained to deal with families in distress.  You should not be frightened or concerned about talking to the Coroner’s Officer.

At the hearing the Coroner will listen to the evidence and ask any questions he thinks he needs to ask to clarify the evidence. Often, witness statements are read out and the witness just has to answer any questions. If you have to give evidence remember that you are allowed to take your time.  If you do not understand a question ask for clarification.  It is all right to say that you do not know the answer to a question.  It is better to say this than to guess.  If you become upset when giving evidence and need to take a break this is fine.  The Coroner’s officer will escort you outside and you can go back in when you feel you can continue.  The Coroner will be familiar in dealing with people who find Inquests very difficult.

If the Inquest concerns a death in prison, a death in police custody, a death by accident poisoning or disease which is notifiable to a government department or where the death occurred in a system which may present a risk to the health and safety of the general public a jury will be asked to attend the Inquest.  The jury will be made up of between 7 and 11 people and are selected using the same criteria as for other Courts.

  • Is there always a Court hearing?

Not always. Sometimes a person’s death is unexpected but turns out to be quite natural. For example, if a person who had been very fit and well has a sudden and massive heart attack the Coroner will order a post mortem. If the Coroner is satisfied that the death was a natural cause then he will not hold an Inquest and will allow the death certificate to be issued.

  • How is it decided which Coroner will deal with the case?

Each county has its own Coroner and the Coroner is helped by Deputies and Assistant Deputies. The Coroner for the county in which the body was found will deal with the case.

If a person dies in suspicious circumstances abroad then it is the Coroner for the county in which the body lies which will deal with the case.

For example, with the soldiers who have died in Afghanistan the bodies are usually flown into RAF Lyneham so the Wiltshire Coroner has jurisdiction.

  • Does a Coroner only deal with deaths in unknown circumstances?

No – they also deal with treasure trove [and who owns it] and permission for exhumations.

  • Can an Inquest deal with something such as a suspicious death rather than the Police?

No, in these circumstances the Coroner will open an inquest and then adjourn the Inquest whilst the Police carry out their investigations. This is the case where a person has already been charged with murder, manslaughter, causing death by dangerous driving, causing death by drink/ drugs and a number of other matters.

In these cases the Police will investigate. If a person is convicted as a result of the police investigations then usually the Inquest does not proceed and the Coroner just files paperwork confirming the cause of death to be as per the criminal proceedings.

Sometimes a person will not be convicted or a criminal case will not be pursued and the Coroner will then re-start the Inquest.

What is likely to happen at the end of an Inquest?

The Coroner’s powers, at an Inquest, are quite limited and some families find this quite difficult to understand.  Some families hope that the Coroner will be able to attribute blame to someone for causing the death but this is not part of the Coroner’s duties.

A Coroner only has to decide four things and these are:

(a)                 who the deceased was

(b)                where the person died

(c)                 when he or she died

(d)                 how he or she came to die

When the Coroner has heard all of the evidence and is able to answer these questions he gives a verdict.  The verdict confirms what the Coroner judges to be the cause of death.  Examples of verdicts are:

(a)                 death by natural causes

(b)                 death from an industrial disease

(c)                 dependent/non-dependent abuse of drugs

(d)                 suicide

(e)                 accidental death

(f)                  death from neglect

(g)                 unlawful killing

(h)                 lawful killing

(i)                   open verdict

An open verdict means where there is insufficient evidence to prove another cause of death.  For example, if is often used in a death concerning a suspected suicide where the deceased left no suicide note.

It is more common now if an Inquest is complicated for the Coroner to give a narrative verdict, i.e. a description of the events which caused the death.

The family will then get a death certificate with a cause of death on it.

Inquests – Do I need a solicitor to attend with me?

Inquests have been designed to permit families to represent themselves. However, you are allowed to have an unqualified friend to speak on your behalf – perhaps a confident family friend.

Our extensive experience, however, is that families will often find the whole inquest procedure inquest quite traumatic – and as a result they often prefer representation by a solicitor or a barrister –  though other families manage on their own or with the help of friends. We find that Inquests are probably one of the hardest Court appearances a family could ever have to make.

However is a personal decision whether or not you need a Solicitor.

Solicitors or barristers are likely to be involved in more complicated cases [such as death from industrial disease or medical negligence where  the medical issues involved are often difficult and many families will struggle to understand them]  or where the family is so distraught that they are likely to be unable to cope with the process of an Inquest.

Some families chose to see Solicitors for advice but then feel that they are able to manage attending the hearing on their own.

Our medical negligence and personal injury solicitors offer a very specialist inquest hearing service – for more details about how we may be able to help you at the inquest, get in touch our fatal accident compensation team.

  • A word about deaths in custody

If a person dies in prison then there is always an Inquest. Quite a common cause of a person dying in prison is if an inmate was on suicide watch and was not supervised properly. The Coroner will always investigate this type of death because as the person was not free he was not always in a position to take steps to ensure his own safety. In prison these steps can be at the hands of prison staff and the question is always whether the inmate was looked after properly.

Is Public Funding available for Inquests

If you are on a low income you can see a solicitor for advice about an Inquest using the Legal Help Scheme.

The cost of having a solicitor represent you at an Inquest are not usually paid for by Public Funding but there are some exceptions if the family cannot be expected to cope with representing themselves at an Inquest e.g. if the deceased was a baby or small child or where the death may affect other people e.g. if there has been a death from a drug and other people are unwell from it.

How can Bonallack and Bishop help?

Our Inquest solicitors and legal assistants who have huge experience of representing families at Inquests.  We also have links with barristers who are experienced in this type of work for very difficult cases including cases involving deaths in hospitals.es.

We have several ways in which we can help families and details of the scheme are attached to this hand out.

We are very experienced in dealing with people who are very distressed and can offer a sympathetic and practical approached.  We find that our clients are more reassured once they have had the opportunity of taking advice from us.

  • Legal Aid

We are able to give advice on documents and procedures to families on a low income, income support or jobseekers allowance under the Legal Help scheme. This will allow us to do 2 hours work and can be extended if further work is necessary. Public funding from the Lord Chancellor’s Department can be  awarded to people on low incomes in rare cases.  It is aimed at Inquests where the death is of public interest or for people who cannot represent themselves because of disability or the tragic nature of the case.

  • No win no fee representation

We do, however, represent clients at Inquest hearings where appropriate, under a  no win no fee [or conditional fee} agreement.

We currently have a 100% record in recovering legal costs for the we have families represented at inquests in Wiltshire, Hampshire and Dorset.

Until  2009 families had to pay for any legal representation at an Inquest and the cost could run into thousands.  This was a double blow for a family who had already lost a loved one and who had not chosen for the Inquest to be held. It had the result that because of lack of legal representation vital questions were not asked and the true cause of death not established.

In the case of Roche and Ors v The Home Office 2009 (EWCH) it was established that where the Inquest took the question of legal liability for the death forward, then the costs of the Inquest would be recoverable as part of the civil claim.

Is it possible to make a fatal accident claim following an inquest?

Losing a loved one is always very painful and sometimes financial disaster is for those who depended on the deceased for subsistence. It can be of some small consolation to know that dependents may be entitled to financial compensation under a certain circumstances.

  • What can I claim for?

“Dependents” have the right to bring fatal accident claims. In particular,  the executor or administrator of an estate may be compensated for losses suffered on behalf of the estate in relation to:

1. The deceased’s pain or suffering prior to death

2. Any financial losses incurred by the deceased prior to death as a result of the accident

3. Funeral expenses

  • Who is a “dependent”?

To be considered a dependent you will need to satisfy the definition of a dependent laid out in the relevant statute Furthermore, the claimant must be deemed to have had a reasonable expectation of financial benefit from the deceased in order to be a dependent.

Unfortunately, there are categories of people who might consider themselves to be dependents, but who under the current law are not able to make any claim for compensation following such a fatal accident. Indeed, the Law Commission, in considering whether or not to extend the definition of dependent, acknowledges that there were a number of people who were suffering financially through not being able to make a claim, including:

• Co-habitants who lived together as husband and wife but did not satisfy the “two year rule”

• Non relatives who were living together in a non-marriage-like relationship

• Children who were not of the deceased but relied upon the deceased’s support during a marriage like relationship between their parent and the deceased

• Children, such as a friend’s children, who were otherwise supported by the deceased

  • How can I pay for a fatal act accident compensation claim?

Legal representation for this kind of compensation claim will usually be funded under a conditional fee or No Win No Fee Agreement. If the Inquest is held before the claim is finalised, then the costs of the Inquest can be recoverable as part of the overall legal bill.

  • My insurance company has advised that I use their solicitor. Do I have to do this?

Absolutely not. You have the right to choose whichever Fatal Injury Claims Solicitor you feel best serves your interests and your insurance company is in no position to force you into choosing a particular lawyer. Given the importance of instructing an expert solicitor, we advise that you make an independent choice.

  • Who do I bring my claim against?

You will need to bring your fatal injury claim against whoever is deemed responsible in full or in part for the fatal injury. This could be an individual or an organisation and in order to win your claim you will need to ensure that enough evidence is collected to prove that the accused has been negligent. That’s why you need a specialist solicitor with plenty of experience of fatal injury claims.  Generally speaking, the defendant will have insurance to cover the cost of compensation and legal expenses.

  • What am I entitled to claim for?

If you can prove that the accused negligently caused the death of your loved one, you will be able to  make the following claims;

• Dependent claims may be made on the grounds that the financial support (from income or pension payments) or services (such as general household support and childcare) provided by the deceased has been lost

• Claims pursue on behalf of the estate may be made citing the financial losses resulting from the death, the expenses borne by the estate as a result and possible pain and suffering that they experienced before their death as a result of their injuries prior to the fatal accident

• Bereavement damages which are fixed at nearly £12,000 at present may be claimed as a statutory right

Bereavement damages – what are they?

Grieving family members can be compensated for their suffering following the death of a loved one in a fatal accident through ‘bereavement damages’. This is a fixed payment which is only paid out under stringent circumstances.

Those who are eligible for bereavement damages are generally:

• The wife, husband or civil partner of the deceased

• The parent of the deceased if they were under eighteen years old

• The unmarried partner of the deceased if the relationship was older the two years

  • What do services dependency claims cover?

Service dependency claims cover the help and support that your loved one may have made beyond simple financial contributions. Perhaps they maintained your garden, home, or car, or looked after your children and helped with transport. Your solicitor will be able to value these contributions in order to make a services dependency claim.

  • What do income dependency claims cover?

Your solicitor will calculate the amount of income that you reasonably expect to have received from the deceased over the rest of their lives and make an income dependency claim. Possible promotions, bonuses and pension assets will be used to work out the value of this claim.

Need Help with an Inquest or Fatal Accident Claim? Make an enquiry with us today.

Coping with the loss of a loved one can be so very difficult. So don't be afraid to ask for help.

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