House of Commons Library

Inquests and public inquiries

Published Wednesday, June 21, 2017

This Commons Library briefing paper sets out information about public inquiries, and coroners’ investigations and inquests, and when one type of investigation might be held rather than the other.

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Inquiries under the Inquiries Act 2005

Only a Government Minister (including Devolved Ministers) may establish an inquiry under the Inquiries Act 2005 (the 2005 Act). The Minister also sets out the terms of reference of the inquiry and decides who should chair it.

Statutory inquiries can have a broader remit than coroners’ investigations and inquests.

Coroners’ investigations and inquests

A coroner has a duty to investigate a death where (s)he is made aware that the body is within that coroner’s area and (s)he has reason to suspect that:

  • the deceased died a violent or unnatural death,
  • the cause of the death is unknown, or
  • the deceased died while in custody or state detention.

An inquest is a court hearing that forms part of a coroner’s investigation of some deaths.

The purpose of an investigation is to ascertain who the deceased was; how, when and where the deceased came by his or her death; and the particulars (if any) required to register the death.

Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) establishes the right to life and imposes on the state both negative obligations not to take life intentionally, and positive obligations to protect life. The positive duty to protect life implies a duty to investigate unnatural deaths, including but not confined to deaths in which state agents may be implicated.  The scope of the coroner’s investigation must be widened to include an investigation of the broad circumstances of the death, including events leading up to the death in question, where this wider investigation is necessary to ensure compliance with the ECHR, in particular Article 2. 

When might a public inquiry be held and not an inquest?

In some circumstances it will not be possible to hold an inquest and a public inquiry will be more appropriate. This might be where there is relevant intelligence material which the coroner is not allowed to see.

Opinions are divided on whether, where either route of investigation might be chosen, it is better to have an inquest or a public inquiry.

The House of Lords Select Committee on the Inquiries Act 2005 concluded that, where public concern extends significantly beyond a death itself to wider related issues, an inquiry may be preferable to an inquest.

What happens to a coroner’s investigation if there is a public inquiry?

A coroner's investigation of a death may be resumed after a public inquiry has concluded, but only if the coroner thinks there is sufficient reason for doing so.  If the investigation is resumed, an inquest might be held as part of that investigation.

 

Commons Briefing papers CBP-8012

Authors: Catherine Fairbairn; Jack Simson Caird

Topics: Coroners, Public inquiries

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