Philip Parry on why companies should have legal representation at an Inquest
October 6, 2014
It would be wrong to categorise Inquests as a form of litigation. Although they may sometimes have the appearance of a criminal or civil trial, they have a very different objective and are entirely unconcerned with concepts of guilt or civil liability. However, ensuring that your position as an individual, or that of your company or organisation is properly protected and, where necessary, robustly promoted at an Inquest, can be every bit as important as if matters were proceeding in the High Court, Crown Court or County Court.
Coroners regularly instruct experts and specialists to assist with complex medical or technical issues connected with a cause of death. It is often important, and indeed sometimes determinative of the outcome, to ensure their evidence is properly tested, and where appropriate, challenged. The conclusion, or findings, at an inquest may have consequences for an individual or organisation. No conclusion (formally known as the “verdict”) may be framed so as to imply criminal or civil responsibility for a death, but the inquest may be a precursor to either a criminal investigation or civil action into a person’s death. Legal assistance throughout the inquest can help ensure that only matters directly connected with a cause of death are addressed and that the inquest is not treated as a dress rehearsal or fishing exercise for potential future litigation.
Additionally, since July 2013, Coroner’s have been placed under a duty to report actions to the Chief Coroner of England and Wales to prevent future, or other, deaths occurring. The Coroner must make such a report where the investigation he or she has been conducting reveals something which gives rise to a concern that there is a risk of deaths in the future and that action should be taken, by an individual, company or organisation, to eliminate or reduce that risk. Such reports are published and are freely accessible on the site www.judiciary.gov.uk/related-offices-and-bodies/office-chief-coroner/pfd-reports . They are frequently very critical of failures in practice, especially if a systemic failure is identified, which was found to be causative of death.
The Reports are aimed at improving safety and preventing future deaths. The company or organisation receiving a Report is under an obligation to provide a detailed response within 56 days. It is hoped by the office of the Chief Coroner that they will be welcomed by the public and private commercial sector as a means by which organisations can identify hazards in their own working environments and address them. However, because the Reports are freely accessible, the company or organisation named within it is readily identifiable to its competitors and customers. This could create a commercial disadvantage in the market place. Ensuring that the company or organisation’s position is comprehensively represented throughout the inquest process, which often means correcting misunderstandings by experts through detailed questioning of them, is one way to show a Coroner that no such Report is warranted, particularly if lessons can be shown to have been learnt from the death before the inquest is heard.
The Inquest process, often held before a jury, is unlike any other form of legal proceeding. However, professional representation is not always essential at an Inquest. The Inquest Team at Exchange Chambers will be happy to give initial advice on whether you, your company or organisation would benefit from simple guidance on the process to full representation throughout.