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Because family life matters

Coroners and inquests

Understanding the legal process involved with post-mortems and inquests.

After a violent, unnatural, sudden or unexplained death there may be a post-mortem and an inquest, led by a Coroner, to establish the facts. As this may not take place until some considerable time after the death, the intervening period can be a very stressful time for the bereaved parents. The possible media attention and the anticipation of having to face the stark details of what happened, perhaps many months or even years later, can hamper their progress in coming to terms with the loss of their child. In some cases, the parents’ struggle for justice may be an ongoing one.

Graeme and Philippa’s son Jim died in Hong Kong in 2007 following a drugs overdose. Philippa gives us an insight into what the legal process was like for them:

“We had never imagined being in such a situation and, after Jim died, realised we didn’t have a clear idea of what a Coroner did or what happened at an inquest. 6 months elapsed between our son’s death overseas and the inquest which would give us an official cause of death, and this was a difficult, dark time.

Perhaps one of the worst days was when the post mortem report dropped through the letter box, three months after his death. The Coroner’s officer had warned us how hard that would be but even so we chose to receive it. He was right to warn us; it was very upsetting and in retrospect I’m not sure we’d make the same decision.

The Coroner’s officer was very kind and did his best to guide us through the process, willing to answer any questions we had as the inquest drew nearer. We were told we didn’t need to attend but we wanted to be there, as we needed to hear for ourselves what was said. We felt terrible as the day eventually dawned and gathering as a bereaved family in the clinical environment of a court waiting room was horrible. In the event, the Coroner was as humane and understanding as his legal position allowed him to be, and we remain grateful for this.

We were prepared for the journalists and instead of answering their questions we offered them a written account of Jim’s death as we understood it.

There weren’t many people present; Jim’s family, court officials and a couple of journalists. We were prepared for the journalists and instead of answering their questions we offered them a written account of Jim’s death as we understood it, as a friend who worked in the media had advised us. Both journalists accepted this and worked from it for their reports. For us it was all part of ensuring that our boy, and his manner of death, would be reported truthfully as far as possible rather than subject to the speculation of those who didn’t know him.”

For some bereaved parents, the inquest can help bring some form of closure. But for others, it may be simply one part of some protracted legal proceedings as they strive to obtain justice. What is certain is that all bereaved parents, particularly those who find themselves drawn in to fulfilling legal requirements, need the non-judgemental care and support from those around them. You may find our resource sheet ‘How You Can Help Bereaved Parents’ helpful.

Further information:

The charity Inquest provides help and advice for those facing an inquest. Bereaved people can obtain a free information pack, including the Inquest Handbook, by following the link under ‘Help and Advice’.

Detailed information on Coroners, post-mortems and inquests do can be found at www.direct.gov.uk.

This information is supplied in good faith, but Care for the Family cannot accept responsibility for any advice or recommendations made by other organisations or resources.