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Significant changes have been made to the inquests system due to coronavirus. Mary Smith, specialist personal injury lawyer from Novum Law’s Bristol office, who has represented many families at inquests explains all.
Over the past few weeks, we have all watched the news and have seen the huge impact of COVID-19 (or coronavirus as it is commonly known) on every aspect of our lives.
While many things have come to a halt, within the legal profession, the justice system needs to continue, so different ways of doing things have been agreed to keep the wheels of justice moving. One such area that has seen significant changes, and which you may not have considered, is the Inquest system in England and Wales.
What is an inquest?
An inquest is a legal investigation to establish the circumstances surrounding a person’s death including who died, how and when they died and why death actually occurred.
When is an inquest needed?
An inquest is needed where a death was sudden, violent or unnatural, happened in the course of a person’s employment, in prison, during police custody, or when a person is detained under the Mental Health Act 1983. Inquests are also required if the cause of death is still uncertain after a post-mortem. Inquests are held in public at a Coroner’s Court.
A lawyer specialising in inquests can be extremely helpful to families, providing advice and support and ensuring they have a fair and equal chance of representation in what can be a complex and unfamiliar process. In many cases, legal representation for an inquest can be provided on a no win no fee basis.
A specialist inquest lawyer can also address matters concerning the law, ask important questions and advise families if there is a potential civil claim (e.g. if your loved one’s death was avoidable and caused by the negligence of someone else) and help secure compensation (sometimes referred to as a ‘settlement’).
Why have inquests changed due to COVID-19?
Inquests during the coronavirus pandemic have had to change so that we can all comply with the Government’s safety guidelines during this lock down period.
The Chief Coroner recently issued a guidance note for coroners covering ongoing inquests during coronavirus and the reporting of deaths caused by COVID-19. Its aim is to help coroners in England and Wales to continue to make decisions independently and in accordance with the law, but in the context of the unprecedented challenges they are now facing.
What are the changes to inquests during the pandemic?
According to the latest guidance, coroners are not required to hold inquests if COVID-19 is confirmed as the cause of death. This is because COVID-19 is classed as a naturally occurring disease.
However, if COVID-19 cannot be confirmed as the cause of death, or where there are other, unnatural factors, which contributed to a death (e.g. neglect), an inquest will still be required.
An exception to the rule is that coroners will still be required to open an Inquest into COVID-19 deaths in ‘state detention’ such as where a death has occurred in prison or a psychiatric hospital.
What happens if the cause of death isn’t clear?
At this time, deaths occurring in hospitals are more straightforward to attribute to COVID-19. However, for deaths which take place outside hospitals, for example, in individuals’ homes or in care homes, it may be harder for medical experts to give a definitive opinion on the cause of death. Normally in these circumstances, a post mortem would be carried out in a short space of time to determine the cause of death, but in these challenging times, this may not be as easy to implement and there may be delays in deaths being registered.
Are Coroners’ Courts still operating?
Yes, the guidance from the Chief Coroner is that all hearings that can possibly take place remotely (via whatever means) should do so. Other hearings should continue only if suitable arrangements can be made to ensure social distancing. Because of the higher than normal volume of work, many Coroner’s Courts have suspended or postponed hearing inquests until later in the year while the process of registering (or opening) new inquests takes place.
Expert Legal View
Mary Smith, specialist personal injury lawyer from Novum Law’s Bristol office, who has represented many families at inquests, says:
“During this pandemic in which many people are sadly losing their lives and the number of deaths being reported by the Office of National Statistics is on the up, it is likely that we will see an increase in the number of deaths requiring an Inquest.
“If you or someone you know has suffered the loss of a loved one during this time, whether due to COVID-19 or not, I would urge you to seek the advice of a lawyer specialising in inquests at an early stage, irrespective of whether an Inquest is due to take place.
“Under the law as it stands, if the death of a loved one was caused or contributed to by failures of the State (for example, through inadequate response to the pandemic or by denying access to physical or mental health care), there may be grounds for a claim. This would be due to a breach of the ‘right to life’ in Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights. These kinds of claims must be brought within a year of the date of death, so it is important to act promptly.”
If you have recently lost a family member or someone close to you and you have concerns about how they died, it is important to consider obtaining specialist legal advice from an experienced inquests lawyer.
For further advice and a free, no-obligation chat or to learn more about changes to inquests during coronavirus, contact Novum Law on 0800 884 0777 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.