Voicing loss: Meanings and implications of participation by bereaved people in inquests

Project: Research council

Project Details

Description

Coroners are independent judicial office holders appointed by the local authority. Over 40% of registered deaths in England and Wales are typically reported to the coroner each year, of which around 12-16% (amounting to nearly 30,000 deaths in 2018) become the subject of a coroner's inquest. The purpose of the inquest - an inquisitorial hearing almost always held in public - is to determine who died and when, where and how the death occurred, in cases where the death was violent, unnatural, unexplained, or took place in custody or other form of state detention.

Close family of the deceased can attend the inquest as 'interested persons'. This gives them the right to question witnesses (either directly or through a legal representative) and to ask to see evidence in advance of the hearing. However, the limited empirical research conducted to date on coroners' courts suggests that, in practice, bereaved people have an uncertain and ambiguous role and status in the inquest, and receive highly variable treatment. This is notwithstanding the repeated assertion by government and both the current and prior Chief Coroner that bereaved families should be 'at the heart of' the coronial process, and reforms having been instituted in support of this broad goal, most notably under the Coroners and Justice Act 2009.

Aims and objectives

In light of the apparent divergence between policy goals and empirical realities, we are proposing to investigate what it means - in theory and practice - for bereaved people to be 'at the heart of' inquest proceedings. We will examine bereaved family members' understandings, expectations and experiences of inquests, and the legal and policy framework within which coroners' courts operate. We will identify and assess contrasting justifications for bereaved people's inclusion and involvement in inquest proceedings, and consider any tensions or contradictions between different functions - such as the administrative, preventive and therapeutic - of the coronial process. On this basis, we will propose answers to the questions of whether bereaved people should indeed be 'at the heart of' the coronial process and have an active role in inquests; and, if so, for what purposes and in what ways. We will, further, explore the implications of these findings for policy and practice, and devise recommendations for reform.

The research activities will encompass a policy review, empirical investigation, conceptual and normative analysis, and extensive stakeholder engagement. The main empirical component will entail gathering personal accounts from individuals who have been bereaved in a range of circumstances. In one-to-one interviews and written accounts and at Family Listening Days (to be run by the charity INQUEST), research participants will be invited to reflect on their expectations and experiences of the inquest with respect to its outcome, the way it was conducted, the support or assistance they received, the part they played in proceedings, and whether and how attending the inquest impacted their grieving.

Potential applications and benefits

The research and analysis will provide rich insights into the empirical and policy phenomena under study, while also refining the theoretical perspectives typically brought to bear on these issues. In close collaboration with lay, practitioner and policy stakeholders, we will draw out the practical applications of the findings: identifying what kinds of policy and practice changes could support the inclusion and involvement of bereaved people in inquests in ways that are viable, appropriate and attuned to their own expectations. In so doing, we will also consider the implications for other kinds of legal proceedings (including public inquiries and criminal prosecutions) which are concerned with deaths and involve bereaved people.
StatusActive
Effective start/end date4/05/213/01/24

Funding

  • Economic and Social Research Council

RCUK Research Areas

  • Law and legal studies
  • Jurisprudence/Philosophy Of Law
  • Public Law
  • Social policy
  • Social Policy