Inquests in England and Wales are held into sudden and unexplained deaths and also into the circumstances of discovery of a certain class of valuable artefacts known as "treasure trove". Inquests are the responsibility of the coroner.
Where an inquest is needed
There is a general duty upon every person to report a death to the coroner if an inquest is likely to be required. However, this duty is largely unenforceable in practice and the duty falls on the responsible registrar. The registrar must report a death where:
- The deceased was not attended by a doctor during their last illness;
- The cause of death has not been certified by a doctor who saw the deceased after death or within the 14 days before death;
- The cause of death is unknown;
- The registrar believes that the cause of death was unnatural, caused by violence, neglect or abortion, or occurred in suspicious circumstances;
- Death occurred during surgery or while under anaesthetic;
- The cause of death was an industrial disease.
The coroner must hold an inquest where the death was:
- Violent or unnatural;
- Sudden and of unknown cause; or
- In prison or police custody.
Where the cause of death is unknown, the coroner may order a post mortem examination in order to determine whether the death was violent. If the death is found to be non-violent, an inquest is unnecessary.
In 2004 in England and Wales, there were 514,000 deaths of which 225,500 were referred to the coroner. Of those, 115,800 resulted in post-mortem examinations and there were 28,300 inquests, 570 with a jury.
With or without a jury?
A coroner must summon a jury for an inquest if the death occurred in prison or in police custody, or in the execution of a police officer's duty, or if it falls under the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974, or if it affects public health or safety. The coroner can also call a jury at their own discretion. This discretion has been heavily litigated in light of the Human Rights Act 1998 and means that juries are required in a broader range of situations than required by statute.
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