If a person dies in Ireland in sudden, unexplained, or violent circumstances, a public inquest may be held by a Coroner to establish the cause of death.
An inquest is not usually held if a post-mortem can establish the cause of death.
In certain cases, such as where death has occurred due to homicide or a road traffic accident, a Coroner is required by law to call a jury to hear the inquest and deliver their verdict on the cause of death.
What is the purpose of an inquest?
The purpose of an inquest is to establish the facts surrounding the death for the public record including, where necessary, the identification of the deceased and the date, location, and time of death. A Coroner’s Court establishes facts for the public record and cannot make a finding in relation to liability for a death, whether civil or criminal. The Coroner may reach any of a number of different verdicts such as natural causes, accidental death, misadventure or, in rare cases, unlawful killing.
The family of the deceased will be informed of the date and location of the inquest but are not legally required to attend. It is open to the family to retain legal representation on their behalf to take notes of the proceedings to in contemplation of litigation arising out of the death. If a family have suspicions about the death of a deceased, they can write to the Coroner requesting an inquest where one has not already been called, setting out their reasons why one should be held.
“Properly interested persons”
Witnesses may need to be called to testify under oath as to the circumstances of the death. It is open to the family of a deceased person they believe died in suspicious circumstances to write to the Coroner requesting that an inquest be held. The coroner will allow “properly interested persons” such as the deceased’s next of kin or personal representative, or the legal representative for those persons, to ask questions of the witnesses at the inquest. While no findings regarding liability may be made, vital information can be obtained from inquests.
If Garda investigations or criminal proceedings are ongoing, these must be completed before an inquest can be completed and an inquest may be adjourned to facilitate same.
All inquests are held in public and reporters may be present, but only a minority of inquests are reported on.
Courtney v Our Lady’s Hospital Ltd
The High Court decided in the case of Courtney v Our Lady’s Hospital Ltd t/a Our Lady’s Hospital Crumlin & Ors in 2008 that in circumstances where the death of a person has been shown to be due to the wrongful act of another, it is usually possible to recover the cost of legal representation at the inquest in the subsequent civil case arising out of the death. Accordingly, the costs of engaging legal representation for an inquest may be recoverable in the subsequent civil case where another party is liable for the death.