How to prepare for an inquest
Rachel Pearce from Coodes Solicitors’ Personal Injury and Clinical Negligence team gives her advice on how to prepare for an inquest if you lose a loved one in hospital.
While it is something that none of us would want to think about, the reality is that we may at some time need to attend an inquest. This is a legal investigation to establish how, where, when and in what circumstances someone died. If you lose a loved one suddenly or unexpectedly in hospital, you may need to attend an inquest. So, what should you expect and how should you prepare?
1. Prepare for a lengthy process
If the issues to be explored at inquest are relatively straightforward then the hearing should be held within 12 months of the death. If the investigation is more complex then it can take many more months and even years for the inquest hearing to be fixed, so be prepared for a lengthy process.
2. Ask someone to accompany you
It is a good idea to take a family member or close friend with you for support and to take notes. There will probably be a great deal of information to take in. As you are likely to be upset you may forget some of the points that were made. You may also find you are not able to ask any questions that you wanted to so your support person can speak on your behalf.
3.Consider submitting a witness statement
If there is going to be an inquest the Coroner’s Officer will take initial statements from you and any other appropriate witnesses. Ahead of the inquest the Coroner will then decide which witness evidence to use either orally or by written statement.
If you have not given a statement, you may decide that you want to submit your own witness statement for the inquest, setting out your version of events and giving some background on the deceased. If the statement you gave at the outset does not include all the information you believe to be relevant, then you can submit a further witness statement. The Coroner may or may not allow the statement to be read, but they usually try to do everything they can for bereaved families. I would suggest keeping a statement to a maximum of three to four pages of A4.
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4. Make sure you know which witnesses will be there
Before the inquest, you will be advised by the Coroner or Coroner’s officer which witnesses are being called to give oral evidence and which statements will be read out. As much as you can, prepare yourself for coming face to face with doctors who you believe may have caused or contributed to your loved ones death. At least knowing in advance who will be attending will avoid any unnecessary shocks.
If you think that a witness should be called to give oral evidence then write to Coroner to let them know this well ahead of the hearing and give your reasons why you feel they should be called. It is the Coroner’s decision as to whether or not to call the witness.
5. Prepare a list of questions
Only certain relatives (known as ‘Interested Person’s) are allowed to ask questions in an inquest and you would be advised of this by the Coroner or Coroner’s Officer. I would suggest preparing a list of questions that you want to ask any of the witnesses. No matter how silly a question may seem, remember the inquest is your one and only opportunity to see the doctors, or other witnesses, face to face. Do not miss the opportunity to ask the questions you really want to have answered. Be prepared to be frustrated with answers that the witnesses may give. If you believe there have been failings in the care or treatment of your loved one then you may not feel satisfied with their responses. Of course you don’t have to ask any questions at all if you don’t want to, it is entirely up to you.
6. Obtain the deceased’s key medical notes and records
On the day of the hearing, the Coroner will have available the deceased’s key medical notes and records. However you may wish to obtain a copy of these yourself ahead of the inquest, in order to review the same and prepare for the hearing. You can obtain copies of medical records from the healthcare provider for a fee.
7. Expect it to take all day
Inquests often take longer than anticipated, so allow a full day to attend a hearing. If you are parking your car, pay for longer than you think you will need and avoid making commitments for later in the day. This will avoid additional stress if the hearing overruns.
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8. Pack appropriately
Take some tissues with you, as well as a notebook and pen, so you can jot down anything during the hearing. Also remember to take any questions that you have prepared as well as the disclosure documents that the Coroner has provided ahead of the hearing such as the witness statements, post-mortem report, toxicology report and any expert reports obtained by the Coroner. If you have obtained copies of the key medical records take them with you in addition to any complaints correspondence and/or Serious Untoward Incident Report (SUI report) that you may have obtained.
9. Expect journalists to approach you
The inquest is a public hearing and as such, will be recorded. There may be a journalist or two present. If they approach you for comments you do not have to say anything at all to them if you don’t want to, it’s entirely up to you.
10. Be prepared to be emotional
Do not underestimate how emotional an inquest can be. You may find some parts of the hearing distressing. Remember that you are free to leave the room at any point if you find it is too much to bear.
Unfortunately an inquest will not always provide all the answers and the closure that people really want. You will often leave the inquest with more questions than you have answers so make sure you have support in place afterwards.
There is some useful information in the INQUEST handbook here. Attending an inquest will never be easy, but being prepared can at least take away some of the avoidable stress.
For advice on how to prepare for an inquest or any of these issues, please contact Rachel Pearce in the Personal Injury and Clinical Negligence team at Coodes Solicitors on 01326 318900 or firstname.lastname@example.org