The Coroner’s Court
The Coroner is an independent, government appointed official with a legal responsibility for investigating sudden, unexplained or unnatural deaths. The Coroner will inquire into the circumstances of the death which may require a post-mortem examination, sometimes followed by an inquest. Post-mortems are carried out by a pathologist, who acts as the Coroner’s agent for the purpose of the post-mortem. The key concern of the Coroner’s inquiry is to establish whether or not death was due to natural causes. A Coroner may be a barrister, solicitor or medical practitioner who has been registered for at least 5 years. In summary the Coroner establishes the “who, when, where and how” of an inexplicable death a coroner will not be required.. Where death has occurred from natural causes or disease and the person was being treated by a doctor within one month prior to death. All cases of sudden, unnatural or violent death are legally required to be reported to the Coroner.
An inquest is an official public inquiry presided over by the Coroner which takes place 6 weeks or more after death. The inquest can be held with or without a jury and is determined by certain circumstances laid down by law. Any witnesses will be requested to submit a written statement and be required to attend the inquest to give their testimony regarding the circumstances surrounding the death. Doctors must attend if they are requested to and are also required to furnish a copy of the medical report and any other relevant notes. The Coroner decides which witnesses are necessary, and their evidence is presented in a logical sequence of events relevant to the circumstances of the death.
Legal Representation at the Coroner’s Court
It is not essential to have legal representation but the evidence presented at an inquest can be of a very complex medical and legal nature or occur against a backdrop of heightened emotions. In those types of circumstances, it may be preferable that you have a lawyer with coroner’s court experience to assist you in ascertaining the circumstances surrounding a death. Understanding medical jargon and knowing the appropriate questions to ask in relation to a death that occurred in a hospital is critical to determining the truth, particularly where there is a potential fatal claim.
At an inquest only certain types of questions can be asked. A doctor giving evidence (under oath), will be taken through his statement and medical report by the Coroner, who will ask any questions required to clarify issues. It is important to understand that the inquest is not a trial. It is an inquiry to establish the facts. Questions of medical negligence, civil or criminal liability or why a death occurred cannot be considered.
In circumstances where a medical negligence action may be contemplated, the inquest affords the family the opportunity to see the relevant witnesses deliver their evidence. You can then judge, with the assistance of legal advice, whether the evidence delivered is credible or likely to be an appropriate defence to any contemplated subsequent civil action. An inquest cannot make a finding of fact that is binding in any subsequent civil or criminal matter. The inquest provides additional information that assists in determining if it’s appropriate, at a later date to contemplate a fatal claim or medical negligence action.
It is for the reasons outlined above that it is preferable to ensure that legal representation is obtained for an inquest. If a hospital medical negligence event has occurred resulting in death, then it is much more preferable to have legal representation as the hospital will have legal representation. Understandably many family members want to find out who is responsible for the death of a loved one. The inquest does not apportion blame or address the issue of who is responsible for the death. The inquest is solely confined to addressing four particular questions –
- Who has died
- When that person died
- Where they died
- How they died
Specific questions that go to the responsibility associated with the death or why a person died may be allowed by the Coroner, where such questions assist the Coroner in making recommendations to prevent a re occurrence of a similar death. Skilled representation will ascertain certain details for the purposes of assisting the Coroner to ascertain the cause of death and make future recommendations. Legal Representation at an Inquest in a Potential Medical Negligence Event In order to be effective at an inquest, it is necessary that the lawyer engaged for the family has knowledge of medical issues, asks the appropriate questions, and understands the answers for the purposes of asking further questions and ascertaining the truth. Any omissions in the content of the witnesses’ statements need to be clarified, as such omissions could be crucial in determining the actual cause of death. Representation at an inquest for a medical negligence event requires a highly skilled level of knowledge and familiarity with the Coroners Court. Significant preparation is required in advance of the Coroner’s Court hearing date to ensure effective representation. The following initial work is undertaken: –
- Obtaining the relevant medical records.
- Obtaining all witness statements/depositions from the Coroner in relation to potential witnesses associated with the tragic death that occurred. Often there can be many witness statements arising out of the care being delivered by a health care team.
- Reviewing the medical records with a nursing advisor for the purpose of highlighting the issues that are required to be addressed at the hearing.
- Obtaining, if deemed appropriate, independent expert opinions which can be utilised during the course of the inquest to ascertain additional information by way of examination.
Legal Costs and the Coroner’s Court
If you decide it is appropriate to engage a lawyer, you should be aware that in general you have no entitlement to seek legal costs. However there are a number of specific exceptions associated with an entitlement to legal costs which include the following:-
- Under the Attorney General’s Scheme, where an issue of crucial public importance occurs, there may be an entitlement to seek legal costs
- If a subsequent medical negligence action is pursued the claim can include the cost of representation at the inquest and are recoverable damages
- Other statutory entitlements may exist, as there are certain proposed legislative amendments that may allow a family to obtain legal costs associated with representation at an inquest.
If you require representation at the Coroner’s Court please phone us at 01 87 444 22 or fill in our inquiry form and a client care executive will be in contact with you. All our client care executives are non-lawyers with a considerable track record of helping people through the many difficult issues that arise during the course of an inquest.
The Dublin City Coroner’s Court