An inquest is a court hearing conducted by the coroner to gather information about the cause and circumstances of a death. An inquest isn’t a trial and there is no jury. It’s not about deciding whether a person is guilty of an offence or civilly liable.
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Inquests are less formal than other conventional court hearings and the coroner can inform themselves and gather information in any way they consider appropriate. Although the rules of evidence don’t apply, the coroner must conduct proceedings fairly.
The coroner hears evidence on oath from people who have information about the death, including police officers, family members, doctors, other experts, eyewitnesses or the public.
If there is an inquest, coroners can make recommendations about matters connected with the death—such as public health and safety matters or the administration of justice—to prevent similar deaths in the future.
The inquest is usually held in the Magistrates Court closest to where the death occurred.
When an inquest is held
Very few coronial investigations proceed to inquest. However, an inquest must be held if the:
- death occurred in custody
- death occurred while the person was in care and there are issues about the care
- death occurred as a result of police operations unless the coroner considers an inquest isn’t needed
- attorney-general directs that an inquest be held
- state coroner orders an inquest to be held
- District Court upholds an appeal against a coroner’s decision not to hold an inquest.
A coroner may also hold an inquest if it’s in the public interest to do so. They may decide there is significant doubt about the cause and circumstances of death, or believe an inquest may prevent future deaths or uncover systemic issues that affect public health and safety.
Once the coroner has decided the inquest hearing date, the coroner’s staff tell the family and other interested parties when the inquest will begin. A notice about the inquest is also published in the law list in The Courier-Mail (online version only) and posted monthly on the Queensland Courts website.
What is a pre-inquest conference
Once the coroner decides hold an inquest, they usually hold a pre-inquest conference. The pre-inquest conference is not the hearing itself.
At the pre-inquest conference, the coroner decides what issues to consider, who the parties are, which witnesses will be called, how long the inquest will take and where to hold it.
Counsel assisting (the in-house lawyer who assists the coroner) outlines the issues to be considered and the witnesses to be called. The parties granted leave to appear at the inquest may make submissions about issues and witnesses they think should be included.
If a family isn’t legally represented, counsel assisting discusses the issues with them before the pre-inquest conference and any concerns they have.
Who attends an inquest
Inquests are usually open to the public. Sometimes a coroner may exclude certain people or the public from the inquest hearing. A coroner can also prohibit the publication of evidence heard at inquest.
Family members are not required to attend unless they’re a witness. The evidence may distress families, as medical evidence and personal information about their loved one is discussed in open court. .
If family attend, they may bring another family member or friend for support during the inquest. You may wish to bring a friend for support during the inquest.
Court Network can also help families understand and prepare themselves for court.
What happens at an inquest
- Counsel assisting and other parties introduce themselves.
- The witnesses are called to give evidence on oath/affirmation.
- Each party asks questions in turn. Sometimes the coroner also asks questions.
- After all the witnesses have been heard, the evidence is closed.
- The parties make final submissions to the coroner (either orally or later in writing).
- The coroner usually adjourns the hearing for time to consider the evidence and submissions and write their findings (about the identity of the deceased, and when, where and how they died).
- Sometimes the coroner makes and delivers their findings the same day. Usually, they adjourn to a future date.
- Later the parties are invited back to hear the coroner deliver the findings
- All inquest findings are published on the Queensland Courts website.
The length of an inquest depends on the complexity of the case, and the number of witnesses and parties. Often the length of time is estimated at the preliminary hearing called the pre-inquest conference.
Support during inquest
If you need support during an inquest, Court Network is a community organisation of volunteers that provide non-legal support for those accessing the court system. Court Network provide free, confidential, support, information and referral to any person attending court.
Court Network are available in Brisbane, Townsville and Cairns. Further details about Court Network locations, the support and referrals services they offer is available on their website. See also, contact information for the Court Network Volunteer Service.
Anyone with sufficient interest can apply to participate in the inquest (i.e. ask questions of witnesses and make submissions). Family and parties may act for themselves or have legal representation.
The coroner has a lawyer that assists them called, counsel assisting. The role of counsel assisting the coroner is to ensure all relevant information is presented to the coroner. Although they’re independent and don’t act for the family, they can explain the process, the issues and witnesses to be examined and any matters the family would like the coroner to consider
Family or individuals involved in an inquest can seek independent legal advice from:
- Caxton Legal Centre and Townsville Community Legal Service – a free statewide Coronial Assistance Legal Service that provides advice about any aspect of the coronial process and associated issues
- Legal Aid Queensland for information and referral for legal advice
- Queensland Law Society for legal firms that specialise in inquests and coronial law
- Community Legal Centres Queensland for the nearest community legal service
- Queensland Public Interest Law Clearing House (QPILCH).
Being a witness
It may be necessary for police to take a statement from you about information you have about the death. Just because you have provided a statement for a coronial investigation doesn’t mean that you will be called to give evidence.
If you are required to attend an inquest to give evidence you will receive a summons to appear.
If you are a witness at an inquest you can seek independent legal advice (see above)
Find out more about being a witness.
Requesting an inquest
Very few coronial investigations proceed to inquest. You may request an inquest by writing to the coroner (Form 15 – Application to coroner to hold an inquest) outlining why it’s in the public interest. The coroner must make the decision within six months, though they may extend that time if they’re waiting on information from a third person.
The coroner must give written reasons for their decision. If the coroner declines your request, you may apply to the state coroner (Form 16 – Application to State Coroner for an order to hold an inquest) or the District Court for an inquest within 14 days of receiving the coroner’s reasons.