What is a coronial inquest?

A coronial inquest is a court hearing or inquiry strictly designed to investigate single or multiple deaths, often in the case of a fire or explosion. The purpose of it is to what happened rather than to determine responsibility, as to prevent a similar occurrence from happening again in the future.

Inquests are unique in many ways, and unlike a typical court trial, they are usually open to the public and do not require a jury to be present.

When is a coronial inquest held?

As mentioned earlier, the Coroner’s job is to find out why a death has occurred, not who was responsible for the death. Coronial inquests are not always necessary in all deaths unless the circumstances of the death involve:

  • A person who has died in custody;
  • A death has occurred while in care;
  • A death has occurred as a result of police operations;
  • Preventing further deaths due to systemic issues;
  • Doubt in the cause of a death;
  • The Attorney-General has requested the inquest;
  • The State Coroner has ordered an inquest; or
  • The District Court upholds an appeal against a coroner’s decision not to hold an inquest.

The time an inquest takes varies, sometimes it can take just a few hours, while other times it could continue for weeks or even months! The duration of an inquest depends very much on the circumstances, the witnesses called and the submissions which are received.

What does the inquest process look like?

There are four main steps that are followed during an inquest:

Determining the scope

The coroner will first establish a scope of inquest, defining the issues that will be considered. This is the very first step which is completed before the inquest formally begins.

Opening summaries

When an inquest is ready to begin, the next step is when the counsel assisting or the coroner’s assistant reads an opening statement to start an inquest. This may be followed by statements from legal representatives for other parties who may be represented at the inquest.

Calling witnesses

Next, the coroner will call witnesses to give evidence about things they saw, heard, and did. This may also involve expert witnesses to provide evidence.

Final submissions taken

After receiving all the evidence from the witnesses, the coroner may accept submissions that are either read in court, or provided in writing. These summarise a party’s position and the matters they wish the coroner to consider. The coroner will next invite the family and interested parties to give a closing statement before the matter is adjourned. Once adjourned, the findings can be completed.

What happens after the inquest?

Once the deceased person has been identified, including how their death occurred, a coroner will provide a report with some recommendations of how the situation could be prevented in the future. This report is given to the Minister, public statutory authority, or an entity and may be used in future trials.

Do you need a lawyer at an inquest?

It’s recommended you seek legal representation if wishing to request a coronial inquest to ensure that your interests are protected. A lawyer can help you to understand and analyse the evidence, question any witnesses on your behalf, and make submissions to the coroner for you.