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An inquest is a judicial inquiry in common law jurisdictions, particularly one held to determine the cause of a person's death. [1] Conducted by a judge, jury, or government official, an inquest may or may not require an autopsy carried out by a coroner or medical examiner. Generally, inquests are conducted only when deaths are sudden or unexplained. An inquest may be called at the behest of a coroner, judge, prosecutor, or, in some jurisdictions, upon a formal request from the public. [2] A coroner's jury may be convened to assist in this type of proceeding. Inquest can also mean such a jury and the result of such an investigation. In general usage, inquest is also used to mean any investigation or inquiry.

Common law Law developed by judges

Common law is the body of law derived from judicial decisions of courts and similar tribunals. The defining characteristic of “common law” is that it arises as precedent. In cases where the parties disagree on what the law is, a common law court looks to past precedential decisions of relevant courts, and synthesizes the principles of those past cases as applicable to the current facts. If a similar dispute has been resolved in the past, the court is usually bound to follow the reasoning used in the prior decision. If, however, the court finds that the current dispute is fundamentally distinct from all previous cases, and legislative statutes are either silent or ambiguous on the question, judges have the authority and duty to resolve the issue. The court states an opinion that gives reasons for the decision, and those reasons agglomerate with past decisions as precedent to bind future judges and litigants. Common law, as the body of law made by judges, stands in contrast to and on equal footing with statutes which are adopted through the legislative process, and regulations which are promulgated by the executive branch. Stare decisis, the principle that cases should be decided according to consistent principled rules so that similar facts will yield similar results, lies at the heart of all common law systems.

Jurisdiction is the practical authority granted to a legal body to administer justice within a defined field of responsibility, e.g., Michigan tax law. In federations like the United States, areas of jurisdiction apply to local, state, and federal levels; e.g. the court has jurisdiction to apply federal law.

In law, medicine, and statistics, cause of death is an official determination of conditions resulting in a human's death, which may be recorded on a death certificate. A cause of death is determined by a medical examiner. The cause of death is a specific disease or injury, in contrast to the manner of death which is a small number of categories like "natural", "accident", and "homicide", which have different legal implications.


An inquest uses witnesses, but suspects are not permitted to defend themselves. The verdict can be, for example, natural death, accidental death, misadventure, suicide, or murder. If the verdict is murder or culpable accident, criminal prosecution may follow, and suspects are able to defend themselves there.

Verdict legal term

In law, a verdict is the formal finding of fact made by a jury on matters or questions submitted to the jury by a judge. In a bench trial, the judge's decision near the end of the trial is simply referred to as a finding. In England and Wales, a coroner's findings are called verdicts.

Criminal law is the body of law that relates to crime. It proscribes conduct perceived as threatening, harmful, or otherwise endangering to the property, health, safety, and moral welfare of people inclusive of one's self. Most criminal law is established by statute, which is to say that the laws are enacted by a legislature. Criminal law includes the punishment and rehabilitation of people who violate such laws. Criminal law varies according to jurisdiction, and differs from civil law, where emphasis is more on dispute resolution and victim compensation, rather than on punishment or rehabilitation. Criminal procedure is a formalized official activity that authenticates the fact of commission of a crime and authorizes punitive or rehabilitative treatment of the offender.

Since juries are not used in most European civil law systems, these do not have any (jury) procedure similar to an inquest, but medical evidence and professional witnesses have been used in court in continental Europe for centuries. [3] [4] [5]

Europe Continent in the Northern Hemisphere and mostly in the Eastern Hemisphere

Europe is a continent located entirely in the Northern Hemisphere and mostly in the Eastern Hemisphere. It is bordered by the Arctic Ocean to the north, the Atlantic Ocean to the west, Asia to the east, and the Mediterranean Sea to the south. It comprises the westernmost part of Eurasia.

Civil law, or civilian law, is a legal system originating in Europe, intellectualized within the framework of Roman law, the main feature of which is that its core principles are codified into a referable system which serves as the primary source of law. This can be contrasted with common law systems, the intellectual framework of which comes from judge-made decisional law, and gives precedential authority to prior court decisions, on the principle that it is unfair to treat similar facts differently on different occasions.

Larger inquests can be held into disasters, or in some jurisdictions (not England and Wales) into cases of corruption. [5]

Disaster An event or combination of events resulting in major damage, destruction or death

A disaster is a serious disruption occurring over a relatively short period of time that causes widespread human, material, economic or environmental loss which exceeds the ability of the affected community or society to cope on a timely basis using its own resources. Developing countries suffer the greatest costs when a disaster hits – more than 95 percent of all deaths caused by hazards occur in developing countries, and losses due to natural hazards are 20 times greater in developing countries than in industrialized countries.

Political corruption is the use of powers by government officials or their network contacts for illegitimate private gain.


The inquest, as a means of settling a matter of fact, developed in Scandinavia and the Carolingian Empire before the end of the tenth century. [6] It was the method of gathering the survey data for the Domesday Book in England after the Norman conquest. [6] In his account of the culture of the Gauls ( Commentarii de Bello Gallico VI.19.3), Julius Caesar mentions a very early use of the procedure: "if a matter comes into suspicion about a death, they hold an inquiry (a quaestio) concerning the wives in the method used for slaves, and if guilt is established, they kill the wives, who have been tortured, with fire and all torments."

Scandinavia Region in Northern Europe

Scandinavia is a region in Northern Europe, with strong historical, cultural, and linguistic ties. The term Scandinavia in local usage covers the three kingdoms of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden. The majority national languages of these three, belong to the Scandinavian dialect continuum, and are mutually intelligible North Germanic languages. In English usage, Scandinavia also sometimes refers to the Scandinavian Peninsula, or to the broader region including Finland and Iceland, which is always known locally as the Nordic countries.

Carolingian Empire final stage in the history of the early medieval realm of the Franks, ruled by the Carolingian dynasty

The Carolingian Empire (800–888), also known as the Empire of the Romans and Franks, was a large Frankish-dominated empire in western and central Europe during the early Middle Ages. It was ruled by the Carolingian dynasty, which had ruled as kings of the Franks since 751 and as kings of the Lombards in Italy from 774. In 800, the Frankish king Charlemagne was crowned emperor in Rome by Pope Leo III in an effort to revive the Roman Empire in the west. The Carolingian Empire is considered the first phase in the history of the Holy Roman Empire, which lasted until 1806.

Domesday Book 11th-century survey of landholding in England as well as the surviving manuscripts of the survey

Domesday Book is a manuscript record of the "Great Survey" of much of England and parts of Wales completed in 1086 by order of King William the Conqueror. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle states:

Then, at the midwinter [1085], was the king in Gloucester with his council .... After this had the king a large meeting, and very deep consultation with his council, about this land; how it was occupied, and by what sort of men. Then sent he his men over all England into each shire; commissioning them to find out "How many hundreds of hides were in the shire, what land the king himself had, and what stock upon the land; or, what dues he ought to have by the year from the shire."

Inquests by region

United Kingdom

England and Wales

In England and Wales, all inquests were once conducted with a jury. They acted somewhat like a grand jury, determining whether a person should be committed to trial in connection to a death. Such a jury was made up of up to twenty-three men, and required the votes of twelve to render a decision. Similar to a grand jury, a coroner's jury merely accused, it did not convict.

England and Wales Administrative jurisdiction within the United Kingdom

England and Wales is a legal jurisdiction covering England and Wales, two of the four constituent countries of the United Kingdom. ’England and Wales’ forms the constitutional successor to the former Kingdom of England and follows a single legal system, known as English law.

A grand jury is a jury – a group of citizens – empowered by law to conduct legal proceedings and investigate potential criminal conduct, and determine whether criminal charges should be brought. A grand jury may subpoena physical evidence or a person to testify. A grand jury is separate from the courts, which do not preside over its functioning.

A convict is "a person found guilty of a crime and sentenced by a court" or "a person serving a sentence in prison". Convicts are often also known as "prisoners" or "inmates" or by the slang term "con", while a common label for former convicts, especially those recently released from prison, is "ex-con" ("ex-convict"). Persons convicted and sentenced to non-custodial sentences tend not to be described as "convicts".

Since 1927, coroner's juries have rarely been used in England. Under the Coroners Act 1988, [7] a jury is only required to be convened in cases where the death occurred in prison, police custody, or in circumstances which may affect public health or safety. The coroner can actually choose to convene a jury in any investigation, but in practice this is rare. The qualifications to sit on a coroner's jury are the same as those to sit on a jury in the Crown Court, the High Court, and the County Court. [8]

Additionally, a coroner's jury only determines the cause of death, its ruling does not commit a person to trial. While grand juries, which did have the power to indict, were abolished in the United Kingdom by 1948 (after being effectively stopped in 1933), coroner's juries retained those powers until the Criminal Law Act 1977. This change came about after Lord Lucan was charged in 1975 by a coroner's jury in the death of Sandra Rivett, his children's nanny. [8]

The charity Inquest looks at inquests concerning contentious deaths including those in places of detention, and has campaigned for reforms to the inquest and coroner's system in England and Wales.


There are no inquests or coroners in Scotland, where sudden unnatural deaths are reported to, and investigated on behalf of, the procurator fiscal for an area. The procurator fiscal has a duty to investigate all sudden, suspicious, accidental, unexpected and unexplained deaths and any death occurring in circumstances that give rise to serious public concern. Where a death is reported, the procurator fiscal will investigate the circumstances of the death, attempt to find out the cause of the death and consider whether criminal proceedings or a fatal accident inquiry is appropriate. In the majority of cases reported to the procurator fiscal, early enquiries rule out suspicious circumstances and establish that the death was due to natural causes. [9]

Deaths are usually brought to the attention of the procurator fiscal through reports from the police, the registrar, GPs or hospital doctors. However, anyone who has concerns about the circumstances of a death can report it to the procurator fiscal. There are certain categories of deaths that must be enquired into, but the procurator fiscal may enquire into any death brought to his notice.

United States

In the United States, inquests are generally conducted by coroners, who are generally officials of a county or city. [10] These inquests are not themselves trials, but investigations. Depending on the state, they may be characterized as judicial, quasi-judicial, or non-judicial proceedings. [11] Inquests, and the necessity for holding them, are matters of statutory law in the United States. [12] Statutes may also regulate the requirement for summoning and swearing a coroner's jury. [13] Inquests themselves generally are public proceedings, though the accused may not be entitled to attend. [14] Coroners may compel witnesses to attend and give testimony at inquires, and may punish a witness for refusing to testify according to statute. [15] Coroners are generally not bound by the jury's conclusion, and have broad discretion, which in many jurisdictions cannot be appealed. The effect of a coroner's verdict at common law was equivalent to a finding by a grand jury, whereas some statutes provide that a verdict makes the accused liable for arrest. [16] Generally, the county or city is responsible for the fees of conducting an inquest, but some statutes have provided for the recovery of such costs. [17] Whether the evidence presented at an inquest can be used in subsequent civil actions depends on the jurisdiction, [18] though at common law, the inquest verdict was admissible to show cause of death. [19] Coroners' reports and findings, on the other hand, are generally admissible. [20]

A coroner's jury deemed Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, and their posse guilty in the death of Frank Stilwell in March 1882. [21]

Cultural references

Related Research Articles

Inquests in England and Wales are held into sudden or unexplained deaths and also into the circumstances of and discovery of a certain class of valuable artefacts known as "treasure trove". In England and Wales, inquests are the responsibility of a coroner, who operates under the jurisdiction of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009. In some circumstances where an inquest cannot view or hear all the evidence, it may be suspended and a public inquiry held with the consent of the Home Secretary.

Jury sworn body of people convened to render a verdict officially submitted to them by a court, or to set a penalty or judgment

A jury is a sworn body of people convened to render an impartial verdict officially submitted to them by a court, or to set a penalty or judgment. Juries developed in England during the Middle Ages, and are a hallmark of the Anglo-American common law legal system. They are still commonly used today in Great Britain, the United States, Canada, Australia, and other countries descended from England's legal traditions.

A coroner is a government official who is empowered to conduct or order an inquest into the manner or cause of death, and to investigate or confirm the identity of an unknown person who has been found dead within the coroner's jurisdiction.

An inquisitorial system is a legal system in which the court, or a part of the court, is actively involved in investigating the facts of the case. This is distinct from an adversarial system, in which the role of the court is primarily that of an impartial referee between the prosecution and the defense. Inquisitorial systems are used primarily in countries with civil legal systems, such as France and Italy, as opposed to common law systems.

Prosecutor supreme representative of the prosecution (of the state)

A prosecutor is a legal representative of the prosecution in countries with either the common law adversarial system, or the civil law inquisitorial system. The prosecution is the legal party responsible for presenting the case in a criminal trial against an individual accused of breaking the law. Typically, the prosecutor represents the government in the case brought against the accused person.

Medical examiner person trained working with investigating deaths and injuries that occur under unusual or suspicious circumstances

A medical examiner is an official trained in pathology that investigates deaths that occur under unusual or suspicious circumstances, to perform post-mortem examinations, and in some jurisdictions to initiate inquests.

Judiciary of Hong Kong

The Judiciary of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region is the judicial branch of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region. Under the Basic Law of Hong Kong, it exercises the judicial power of the Region and is independent of the executive and legislative branches of the Government. The courts in Hong Kong hear and adjudicate all prosecutions and civil disputes, including all public and private law matters.

Procurator fiscal

A procurator fiscal, sometimes called PF or fiscal, is a public prosecutor in Scotland. They investigate all sudden and suspicious deaths in Scotland, conduct fatal accident inquiries and handle criminal complaints against the police. They also receive reports from specialist reporting agencies such as Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs.

Fatal accident inquiry Scottish judicial process

A fatal accident inquiry is a Scottish judicial process which investigates and determines the circumstances of some deaths occurring in Scotland. Until 2009, they did not apply to any deaths occurring in other jurisdictions, when the Coroners and Justice Act 2009 extended the Fatal Accidents and Sudden Deaths Inquiry (Scotland) Act 1976 to service personnel at the discretion of the Chief Coroner or the Secretary of State. The equivalent process in England and Wales is an inquest. A major review of the fatal accident inquiries was undertaken by Lord Cullen of Whitekirk, at the request of the Scottish Government, which resulted in the passing of the Inquiries into Fatal Accidents and Sudden Deaths etc. (Scotland) Act 2016.

The criminal law of Canada is under the exclusive legislative jurisdiction of the Parliament of Canada. The power to enact criminal law is derived from section 91(27) of the Constitution Act, 1867. Most criminal laws have been codified in the Criminal Code, as well as the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, Youth Criminal Justice Act and several other peripheral statutes.

The open verdict is an option open to a coroner's jury at an inquest in the legal system of England and Wales. The verdict means the jury confirms the death is suspicious, but is unable to reach any other verdicts open to them. Mortality studies consider it likely that the majority of open verdicts are recorded in cases of suicide where the intent of the deceased could not be proved, although the verdict is recorded in many other circumstances.

Operation Paget was the Metropolitan Police inquiry established in 2004 to investigate the various conspiracy theories surrounding the death of Diana, Princess of Wales on 31 August 1997. Its first report with the findings of the criminal investigation was published in 2006. The inquiry was wound up following the conclusion of the British inquest two years later, in which a jury delivered its verdict of an "unlawful killing" by chauffeur Henri Paul and the pursuing paparazzi.

A coroner's jury is a body convened to assist a coroner in an inquest, that is, in determining the identity of a deceased person and the cause of death. The laws on its role and function vary by jurisdiction.

Coroners Court of the Australian Capital Territory

The Coroner's Court of the Australian Capital Territory is a court which has exclusive jurisdiction over the remains of a person and the power to make findings in respect of the cause of death of a person or fire in Australian Capital Territory.

The title of Coroners Court is the name given to proceedings in which a coroner holds an inquest or an inquiry in the Northern Territory.

Paul Knapman DL was Her Majesty's coroner for Westminster, from 1980 to 2011. His responsibility for investigating sudden deaths as an independent judicial officer saw him preside over numerous notable cases.

A death is suspicious if it is unexpected and its circumstances or cause are medically or legally unexplained. Normally, this occurs in the context of medical care, suicide or suspected criminal activity.

In many legal jurisdictions, the manner of death is a determination, typically made by the coroner, medical examiner, police, or similar officials, and recorded as a vital statistic. Within the United States and the United Kingdom, a distinction is made between the cause of death, which is a specific disease or injury, versus manner of death, which is primarily a legal determination. Different categories are used in different jurisdictions, but manner of death determinations include everything from very broad categories like "natural" and "homicide" to specific manners like "traffic accident" or "attempted or self-induced abortion". In some cases an autopsy is performed, either due to general legal requirements, because the medical cause of death is uncertain, upon the request of family members or guardians, or because the circumstances of death were suspicious.

Deaths at Deepcut army barracks

The Deaths at Deepcut Barracks is a series of incidents that took place involving the deaths in obscure circumstances of four British Army trainee soldiers at the Princess Royal Barracks, Deepcut in the county of Surrey, between 1995 and 2002.

A coroner in Washington state is a quasi-judicial, public official principally charged with the certification of human death. It is completely identical in authority to the parallel office of medical examiner, which also exists in the state. Washington uses a "mixed system" of death investigation with some counties employing coroners, and some employing medical examiners.


  1. "Definition of INQUEST".
  2. "Municode Library".
  3. "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2008-09-05. Retrieved 2008-07-03.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  4. "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2008-09-07. Retrieved 2008-07-03.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  5. 1 2 [Anon.] (2001) "Inquest", Encyclopædia Britannica , Deluxe CDROM edition
  6. 1 2 Baker, J. H. (2002). An Introduction to English Legal History (4th ed.). London: Butterworths. pp. pp72–73. ISBN   0-406-93053-8.
  7. "Coroners Act 1988, s 8(3)". BAILII.
  8. 1 2 "King's College of London - Coroner's Law Resource".
  9. Scottish Government, St Andrew's House (27 April 2006). "What to do after a death in Scotland: ... practical advice for times of bereavement - 8th Edition".
  10. 18 C.J.S. Coroners and Medical Examiners §§ 1, 9.
  11. 18 C.J.S. Coroners and Medical Examiners § 10.
  12. 18 C.J.S. Coroners and Medical Examiners § 11.
  13. 18 C.J.S. Coroners and Medical Examiners § 14.
  14. 18 C.J.S. Coroners and Medical Examiners § 16.
  15. 18 C.J.S. Coroners and Medical Examiners § 17.
  16. 18 C.J.S. Coroners and Medical Examiners § 19.
  17. 18 C.J.S. Coroners and Medical Examiners § 23.
  18. 18 C.J.S. Coroners and Medical Examiners § 24.
  19. 18 C.J.S. Coroners and Medical Examiners § 25.
  20. 18 C.J.S. Coroners and Medical Examiners § 26.
  21. "Your Page".