An inquest is a formal process of state investigation. A common type inquest is a medical examination any cause of death under suspicious circumstances. Larger inquests can be held into disasters, or into cases of corruption.
Inquests in jurisdictions based on British laws
In jurisdictions under the Westminster system, the process is the responsibility of a special non-criminal court called the Coroner's Court under the supervision of the Coroner.
Individuals with an interest in the proceedings, such as relatives of the deceased, individuals appearing as witnesses, and organisations or individuals who may face some responsibility in the death of the individual, may be represented by lawyers at the discretion of the coroner. Witnesses may be compelled to testify subject of a protection against self-incrimination.
Some inquests take place before a jury.
At the conclusion of the inquest, the jury (or coroner) considers the facts of the death and gives a verdict representing their opinion of the reasons for the death. This may include recommendations that individuals or organisations are in some way responsible for the death. If so, a finding may recommend that those entities face criminal charges. The finding may state that it is believed that a death was accidental. Often, no conclusion can be reached about the reason for a death, and an open finding is returned. Findings may also contain recommendations for changes to the practices of governments or organisations on how to avoid such deaths in the future, if the inquest reveals that such changes are desirable.
Coroners record their verdicts; juries return verdicts.
If an open finding is returned, the inquest can be reopened if new evidence is found and presented to the coroner.
The qualifications required of coroners varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. Originally, coroners did not always have legal training. This has led to concerns that, particularly in cases where a real suspicion of foul play exists and where coroners must correctly instruct juries as to the relevant law, that incorrect findings were too common. Consequently, some jurisdictions have modified their laws to require coroners to have studied and practised law.
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