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Spotlight on inquests...

28 June 2011

When I first started my second seat in the Health team I assumed that Health = Medical Negligence, however although this is a major part of the fee earning work within the team, I have also had a lot of involvement representing NHS Trusts at inquests.

Indeed, within the first few days I was sent to take an attendance note, and it can be quite a challenge getting to grips with the medical lingo, where terms such as ‘myocardial infarction’ (heart attack) and ‘pulmonary oedema’ (fluid accumulation on the lungs) are banded about just as readily as ‘the patient looked comfortable’! Pretty soon you begin to understand a given condition in detail, simply through reading reports of clinicians and experts (this is true for both inquest and clinical negligence cases).

So, what is the point of an inquest? Crucially, it is not about apportioning blame or determining civil or criminal liability; instead it is a fact finding exercise to ascertain who the deceased was, and how, when and where the deceased died. Usually questions of ‘who’, ‘when’ and ‘where’ are easily answered; leaving the question of ‘how’ as the main focus of the inquest.

In order to help establish this, the Coroner is able to call a number of witnesses, and in the case of hospital deaths, this can involve any of the staff involved in the patient’s care, from Consultants to nursing staff. This is where we come in, working alongside the legal team of the represented Trust, to ensure that the witnesses understand the process and are prepared for what can be a rather daunting procedure.

The Coroner’s court is a unique beast where top QC’s rub shoulders with individual ‘interested’ lay persons, e.g. family members, or personal representatives, as any interested person can question the witnesses, provided the questions posed are within the scope of the inquest (the ‘when, where, how’ and so on).

If you are interested in health law I would highly recommend going along to the Coroner’s court and watching an inquest. It is often frequented by the press, particularly where a hospital may have been considered at fault – more than once an inquest I have been involved in has ended up on the news!