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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.


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.

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]

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


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."

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.

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

See also

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.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Jury</span> Group of people to render a verdict in a court

A jury is a sworn body of people (jurors) convened to hear evidence and render an impartial verdict officially submitted to them by a court, or to set a penalty or judgment.

A coroner is a government or judicial 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, or legal systems based on Islamic law like Saudi Arabia, rather than in common law systems. It is the prevalent legal system in Continental Europe, Latin America, African countries not formerly under British rule, East Asia, Indochina, Thailand, and Indonesia. Most countries with an inquisitorial system also have some form of civil code as their main source of law.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Prosecutor</span> Legal profession

A prosecutor is a legal representative of the prosecution in states 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 the defendant, an individual accused of breaking the law. Typically, the prosecutor represents the state or the government in the case brought against the accused person.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Medical examiner</span> Post-mortem investigation forensic pathologist

The medical examiner is an appointed official in some American jurisdictions who is 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.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Procurator fiscal</span> Public prosecutor in Scotland

A procurator fiscal, sometimes called PF or fiscal, is a public prosecutor in Scotland, who has the power to impose fiscal fines. 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 His Majesty's Revenue and Customs.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Fatal accident inquiry</span> United Kingdom legislation

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.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Trial</span> Coming together of parties to a dispute, to present information in a tribunal

In law, a trial is a coming together of parties to a dispute, to present information in a tribunal, a formal setting with the authority to adjudicate claims or disputes. One form of tribunal is a court. The tribunal, which may occur before a judge, jury, or other designated trier of fact, aims to achieve a resolution to their dispute.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Criminal law of Canada</span>

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.

In English law, unlawful killing is a verdict that can be returned by an inquest in England and Wales when someone has been killed by one or more unknown persons. The verdict means that the killing was done without lawful excuse and in breach of criminal law. This includes murder, manslaughter, infanticide and causing death by dangerous driving. A verdict of unlawful killing generally leads to a police investigation, with the aim of gathering sufficient evidence to identify, charge and prosecute those responsible.

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 British Metropolitan Police inquiry established in 2004 to investigate the conspiracy theories about the death of Diana, Princess of Wales in a car crash in Paris in 1997. The inquiry's 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 in 2008, in which a jury delivered its verdict of an "unlawful killing" due to the "gross negligence" of both the driver of Diana's car 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.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Coroner's Court of the Australian Capital Territory</span>

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.

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 versus the mechanism of death which does not explain why the person died or the underlying cause of death and can include cardiac arrest or exsanguination. 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 "gunshot wound". 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.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Deaths at Deepcut army barracks</span> A series of deaths at a British Army camp in Surrey, England

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

A coroner in the U.S. state of Washington 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.


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  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. 72–73. ISBN   0406930538.
  7. "Coroners Act 1988, s 8(3)". BAILII.
  8. 1 2 "King's College of London – Coroner's Law Resource". Archived from the original on 2012-09-25. Retrieved 2010-06-23.
  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".