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Inquest and Fatal Accident Inquiry

A guide for RCN members on Coroner Inquest and Fatal Accident Inquiries.

England, Wales and Northern Ireland

A Coroner’s inquest is a public inquiry into cause of death. In Scotland this is known as a Fatal Accident Inquiry called by the Procurator Fiscal.

You may be called upon by the Coroner’s Court to give testament to the care given to a patient who dies under circumstances where the reason for death is unclear or unexpected.

In England, Wales and Northern Ireland the Inquest will be ordered by the Coroner in cases of deaths that are sudden, accidental or suspicious. A Coroner is usually a doctor or a lawyer, sometimes both, who is in charge of the investigation of all sudden, accidental or suspicious deaths. For more information please see the Coroners’ Court Support Service

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Scotland

In Scotland, the Procurator Fiscal goes through the evidence at the Inquiry. It is held in front of a Sheriff, who then issues a determination once all the evidence is heard. The determination will include findings on the cause of death, any reasonable precautions by which the death might have been avoided and other relevant matters. For more information please see the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service at www.copfs.gov.uk

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Purpose of the Inquest/Fatal Accident Inquiry

An Inquest decides the cause of death only and does not apportion blame.

If there is a risk of your being prosecuted in connection with a death or you are found to have some responsibility for the death, it is very important that you contact us for further advice. Your employer should offer some support; ask if they will arrange representation for you.

In Scotland, the Sheriff can make findings in his/her determination that an individual ought to have taken precautions which might have avoided death.

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Attendance and representation at an Inquest/Inquiry

As part of the investigation, the court will request written statements and the Coroner/Procurator Fiscal will then decide who to call as a witness. You may not need to attend the Inquest/Inquiry if your evidence is unlikely to be controversial. If you are called as a witness, the Coroner may ask you to read through your statement, or may take you through the statement in court. 

The Coroner will decide who meets the criteria as “interested persons” and they are permitted to ask you questions. The questions are not a cross-examination (as in other courts) and you are not obliged to answer the questions if the answer would incriminate you. Interested party status is automatically granted to those who advise the coroner that they will be legally represented. On occasion the coroner may change the status of a witness to a PIP. Often this simply means that the coroner considers that this person may be able to assist further.

When giving evidence you must be honest and trustworthy and make sure that any evidence or documents you write, or sign, are not false or misleading. You should recognise and work within the limits of your competence.

You must take reasonable steps to check the information and must not deliberately leave out relevant information.

If you have been summoned, or cited in Scotland, and do not attend you may receive a penalty, which could be a prison sentence or fine.

If there is a risk of you being prosecuted in connection with a death or you are found to have some responsibility for the death, it is very important that you contact us for further advice.

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RCN representation

The RCN policy is that we would expect the employer to represent a member at an Inquest/Inquiry.

However, in certain exceptional circumstances, the RCN may provide support but this will be determined on a case-by-case basis if:

  • there is a clear conflict of interest between a member and other staff involved in the patient's care (such as doctors) and it would be difficult for the employer to represent all staff and the interests of the employer
  • the employer is refusing to represent, and the RCN cannot persuade the employer otherwise.

Your trust may arrange legal representation to protect the trust's interests. They may also be able to represent you if there is a potential conflict between your interests and those of your employing trust.

Please contact us if you wish to discuss this further.

For more information on what to expect when attending a coroners court please go to the Coroners’ Court Support Service site.

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Call the RCN on: 03457726100