Bereavement due to suicide

The inquest

If suicide is suspected in England and Wales there is always a public hearing, the inquest. Anyone can attend an inquest hearing. At the end of an inquest hearing the coroner (or jury in some cases) can give one of many verdicts, including death due to accident, suicide, open, or unlawful killing. To give a verdict of suicide the coroner has to be satisfied that the deceased did the act which ended his / her life and intended by that act that his / her life would end. This has to be proved “beyond all reasonable doubt”. The coroner may return an “open verdict” to reflect that there is insufficient evidence to support any other verdict available (also see ‘Reactions to the verdict’). A “narrative” verdict can also be returned, which is a more descriptive comment, and less of a “label” than other verdicts.

The system in Scotland seems more straightforward. The procurator fiscal has a duty to investigate all unexplained deaths. His or her functions are broadly equivalent to the coroner's in other legal systems. Once the procurator fiscal has all the necessary information, he or she sends a report to the headquarters of the Procurator Fiscal Service. In most cases it stops there. However, in some cases a 'fatal accident inquiry' is held. Some of the people we talked to in England were aware of the Scottish system and suggested that it is better because it is less intrusive and traumatic for the family involved.

People bereaved by suicide may see the inquest as an important opportunity to find out what happened to their friend or relative and to publicly state their version of events. This may be their one opportunity to ask questions about how a relative died. However, some of the people we talked to felt that the inquest was an intrusion into their family’s tragedy and they disliked the way it was played out in public.

The purpose of the inquest or (in Scotland) the fatal accident inquiry is to assess the circumstances surrounding the death and to identify any issues of public concern or safety. The court will identify whether anything might be done to help avoid similar deaths in future. The court does not apportion blame for the death or make any findings of fault.

People may have to wait many months for the inquest hearing or fatal accident inquiry. Some people we talked to found the long wait difficult and felt their lives were on hold while the inquest process was “hanging over them”. However, the delay can also be quite helpful.

Not all those we talked to had attended an inquest or fatal accident inquiry. One woman was still waiting for her husband’s inquest. He had died three months previously, and she had been told that she would probably have to wait another six months for the hearing. Others had decided not to attend. Since the coroner decides who must attend the hearing, family members can only decide not to attend if the coroner has first said that they need not do so. Two people in Scotland had been told that a fatal accident inquiry was not needed, and one woman was waiting to see if an inquiry would take place. However, most people we talked to had been to an inquest hearing, and they recalled what had happened and discussed the roles of the coroner’s officer and the coroner.
 
The coroner’s officer (sometimes called a coroner’s investigator) gathers information, and should maintain close links with the bereaved family; explain the timescales involved, and explain the layout of the court and what will happen throughout the whole process, what that process involves and what happens at the hearing itself. Some people said that the coroner’s officer had prepared them for what might happen at the hearing, but others felt unprepared, did not understand the officer’s role, or were uncertain what questions to ask.
People also talked about the coroner and his or her role in the inquest. Some said the coroner had treated them with kindness and understanding, and had phoned them or made contact by email before the inquest. Others thought that the coroner had been cold and lacked “humanity” or that the court atmosphere was intimidating or ‘Dickensian’. Although many people found the formal environment daunting, some described the time leading up to the inquest as more stressful than the event itself.

The coroner may decide that a public hearing is not necessary. He or she may look at the written statements from people involved, such as the doctors, the pathologist, family and friends, and then come to a verdict. This may be called a “chamber’s finding”, a “documentary” inquest or a “paper” inquest. Melanie experienced what she called a “documentary” inquest after her husband died [see Interview 21 above].

However, most people said that witnesses had been asked to give evidence in court. Some people had been asked to take the witness stand themselves. Brenda said that had she known she was going to give evidence she would have been terrified. However, when she was asked to talk about her son and explain what had happened she was surprisingly calm. She said that talking openly about her son helped her in her grief.
 
Taking the witness stand can be traumatic. Susan said she was quite shocked when she had to take the witness-stand because having seen the interim death certificate she thought that the cause of death had already been established. (When there is an inquest the coroner will issue an interim certificate when the inquest is opened. An interim death certificate is necessary to enable the body to be released for a funeral to be held and for the administrative procedures that follow a death- see ‘Practical matters’). The coroner registers the death after the inquest hearing is complete and then the “final death certificate” becomes available from the Registrar.
Since the inquest hearing may be traumatic and distressing it may be a good idea to take a friend or relative along for support. Amanda took her sister with her. She also arranged to have a psychotherapy session immediately after the hearing.
 
Sometimes barristers and a jury are involved in the inquest process. The hearing may go on for days or even weeks.
Any death which occurs in custody or in prison will always be referred to a coroner. There will always be an inquest hearing with a jury sitting.
Useful information about the whole inquest process can be found on a website run by an organisation called INQUEST. It provides independent free legal and practical advice to bereaved families and friends about the inquest process. It offers specialist advice to lawyers, bereaved people, advice agencies, policy makers, the media and the public on contentious deaths and their investigation.

Last reviewed January 2015.

Last updated October 2012.

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