A look at inquests in England and Wales: What do they achieve? What are their limits? Practical information and some personal commentary that I hope might be helpful for someone, somewhere.
Today is the 5th anniversary of the inquest of my daughter Catherine. What a strange thing to put into words: “My daughter’s inquest.” It is incomprehensible. A birthday, a wedding anniversary, some other occasion is comprehensible. But not oh not, “It was my daughter’s inquest.”
With today being this day, it seems the time is right to write about inquests, and as it happens, I’m also in the midst of research for a supportive leaflet about inquests I’m creating for a charity.
I don’t know the law or procedures in other countries, but here in England (Scotland is different), when someone dies unexpectedly, an inquest may be held. It is a legal process; the bereaved don’t have any choice in the matter.
Last weekend I was at the national gathering of The Compassionate Friends, and whilst there I chatted to a QC (barrister) who helps some parents with the inquests of their children, and he also did a short presentation about inquests. He gave some of the historical background that dates back several hundred years, which was interesting.
An inquest seeks to answer: who has died, where they died, when they died, and how they died. In times gone by, the who, where and when might have been a bit harder to establish. Nowadays, that information is usually known, but the focus is on the how.
Sometimes people have expectations of the inquest that simply do not equate with the reality of what takes place. An inquest does not seek to apportion blame. It is basically fact-finding. It’s not a trial with a judge and jury, although it is held in a courtroom. It can last a few hours or a few days; only exceptionally does an inquest go on for months or years, like the Hillsborough disaster. The coroner has a lot of control over the proceedings, deciding which witnesses to call, what evidence to pursue.
If an inquest is looming ahead for your loved one, it’s wise to be prepared, to understand in advance what will happen, and then brace yourself for it. If you have no partner, try to bring a trusted friend with you. Sometimes it’s possible to get help on the day from outside sources.
Here are a few links to some organisations that give information and advice, and may provide further guidance.
(These are external links. I’m not endorsing these organisations, just giving you some ideas of where to start looking.)
Some courts provide Coroner Courts Support Services (CCSS) volunteers to support you, at least on the day of the inquest.
INQUEST: For deaths in custody and detention.
Action against Medical Incidents (AvMA): For deaths related to medical treatment (NHS or private)
Victim Support: Supporting those bereaved by murder and manslaughter
Road Peace: Supporting those bereaved through road traffic accidents
RETHINK: For deaths of those who were suffering from mental illness, whether or not they were receiving treatment. This includes suicide.
In some cases you may want to engage a solicitor, but that is not always necessary. You can read a bit more about that here.
It’s hard to express just how difficult it is to sit through your loved one’s inquest, as their death may be described in great detail. It can be quite traumatic to sit through the commentary and discussions. (You can excuse yourself if you don’t want to hear certain subjects. In fact, unless you have been called, you are not required to attend.)
But what is most hard, in my opinion, is the outcome. Because no matter what the coroner says at the end, the reality is that nothing can bring our loved ones back. Of course we know that, but that may not stop the flood of emotions as we reach the end of an inquest.
The day after my daughter’s inquest, I wrote this poem.
We went to my daughter’s inquest yesterday
My dear husband and I.
He helped to support me, held me firm
As I trembled and despondently cried.
We’d spent months in preparation
Reading records and making notes
Sending statements to the court
Expressing what we thought was right.
Now here we were, in solemn court
With strangers in suits and wooden pews
Breathless we waited to see if press would come
And turn our sorrow into news.
We heard the testimonies
Of care workers, doctors and police
Our solicitor stood and asked questions
To examine their evidence.
I sat listening, trembling
Hours went by, many words were said
Nothing unexpected, nothing new
Was this real? I wondered in my head
We gave the coroner a photo of a pretty girl
He reached out to take it in his hand
He looked at her, then smiled at me
A glimpse of compassion I did understand
The coroner gave his verdict, his view
What caused my daughter’s death
To hear it spelled out in words so few
I bowed my head and held my breath.
Then the inquest was over
The coroner had said his final words
They all rose up to leave the court
But my memory of the scene is blurred
For then the tears began again to roll
I wept and wept and shook my head
Unable to accept the sad conclusion
My daughter was still and absolutely dead.
The inquest couldn’t change a thing
We did the best we could, we tried
But couldn’t alter what had happened
Nothing is different, she has died.
It is almost inconceivable to me that I survived that day, but I did.
So I want to finish this with the same message I often conclude my writings about those dark, dark days of mourning. A day has 24 hours. Eventually it passes. It may be a day that feels unbearable. Yet as we let the tears flow and find ways to express our heartbreak, we also find strength to survive. It doesn’t always feel like it, but tomorrow is another day. For me now it is five years and six months since my daughter died; five years since that awful inquest.
Yes, we can survive.
We have and we do.