0.18–1.42 mins Who are the Coroners Court Support Service and what do they do
1.43–3.49 mins What do families think and feel about the inquest process and hearings
3.50–5.29 mins What rights do families have within the inquest process
5.30–6.17 mins What do families expect from the inquest process and what is their role within it
6.18–9.44 mins How should medical witnesses give evidence and interact with the family
9.45–11.07 mins Meeting with the family prior to inquest
I’m Beverly Radcliffe. I’m the director of the coroner's court support service and we are a charity whose trained volunteers support people when they attend inquests at the coroner's courts.
So, the people that we support at inquests are families, but they're also witnesses and anybody else that needs our support. And support can mean many different things to different people depending on what their needs are on the day. So, we can give them emotional support around the inquest and bereaved families are often emotionally charged in that environment, and we can also offer practical information, so, that's around the remit of an inquest - what the process will be, what will happen on the day; and I think a lot of people who attend an inquest don't really know about an inquest, about what to expect on the day, and what their rights are within that inquest process.
I think families before the inquest can receive support from the coroner’s office but that support is very limited and tends to be of a factual nature. We are able to support lots of people in lots of coroner’s courts but we are only in about half of the coroner’s courts within England and Wales and that’s purely down to funding. Out of choice we would be a national service and so people, it doesn’t matter where they attend the coroner’s court for the inquest, we would be there to support them. We do have a national helpline and can support them over the telephone but we only have a limited number of resources around the country at the actual coroner’s court.
I think when people attend, particularly bereaved families, they don't really know what to expect when they attend an inquest. They may have seen things on the television, but that might be things like ‘Silent Witness’, which doesn't bear any resemblance to what actually happens at an inquest at the coroner's court in England and Wales. So, they have very mixed expectations about what's going to happen on the day. If they have had contact with our organization before they attend the inquest, they will know what the remit and the process will be because we can explain that to them, but often if they arrive without any expectations at all or have no prior knowledge about what to expect, they may think of it as a criminal court because they hear the word court, coroner's court, and think of all the things that relate to a criminal court. So, their understanding might be that it would be quite intimidating, quite daunting, maybe quite challenging, adversarial, that sort of thing, all the things that conjure up the word ‘court’ when they attend, and a coroner's court isn't like a criminal court.
I think when bereaved families attend the inquest, they may be feeling lots of different things. Often, they will be very emotionally charged because they are grieving. They are trying to grieve the death of a loved one and they are trying to do that at the same time as make sense of what's happening, why there was a need for an inquest, what is an inquest and sometimes they find it difficult to assimilate that information, not because they wouldn't normally be able to take that information in, but I think sometimes when people are thrown into such an alien environment and they are grieving at the same time, information just does not go in in the same way and so I think people really struggle with understanding what's happening.
Some members of the family will have certain rights when they attend an inquest at the coroner's court. So, the next-of-kin have the right to disclosure, but we would always say to the family, what's disclosure, because the family may not understand what disclosure is, and that's about certain reports and statements that the coroner is going to rely upon to use within the coroner's court and at the inquest. So, the next-of-kin can ask for that disclosure and we would suggest that when they receive it, to have somebody with them to act as support because it can be quite emotionally difficult to read the information surrounding somebody's death, and to have somebody there to support them, things like the post-mortem report, that they could take to their GP and ask the GP to read through it with them so that the GP can explain any medical terms or any medical jargon that's within the post-mortem report.
Also, that report can be quite distressing to read. I think sometimes the post-mortem report goes into great detail about parts of the body that have been examined and as a family member, that's a person that is being talked about and being recorded and reported on and they are reading things like the weight of the heart or the consistency of the liver, and I think that can be incredibly distressing for family members to read that very clinical medical term around the person who they loved.
I think most families expect to get answers from an inquest and that's the reason why the coroner will ask certain witnesses to come to give evidence because the next-of-kin has a legal right within that inquest process and one of those rights is that they can ask witnesses questions. The questions should relate to the remit and the procedures of an inquest, but they are able to ask questions. So, they can ask those questions that they've had around, what happened to the person when they died, but sometimes they have questions around why. Why did it happen. That won't necessarily get answered because it's not about why, it's about how the person died. They will get answers to the questions that they have around what happened.
I think when a doctor attends an inquest it's really important for them to have a really good understanding of where bereaved families are at when they attend, emotionally, because when somebody dies in normal natural circumstances, that's a terrible thing, it's a shock and even when it's expected, it's a shock to the system and that shock will probably last quite a long time. Put yourself in the shoes of a bereaved family member. That person will have put their grief on hold for many months until the inquest and even beyond the inquest and so they are still within that grieving process, but in a skewed sort of way. Sometimes it really complicates or halts the grieving process and so people will feel very emotionally charged. When you ask them to attend an inquest and they are hearing details again about how somebody's died, that can put them right back to as though the person died yesterday. So, their emotions are very, very high.
I think if I were going to give some top tips to doctors or other medical professionals about how they could interact with the family or be with the family when the inquest happens, is that they would again be human. Put yourself into the shoes of the family person. What do you think it's like for them attending the inquest? It's very difficult for the family. Try and explain things in normal everyday language terms, break down medical jargon, break down medical terms. Explain things in everyday ways if you can, rather than explaining them in your professional capacity. Try and speak to them as though you're speaking to a friend who's got no medical experience at all.
And then speak to the family, directly speak to the family, give them eye contact; be that human-being, that compassionate person and reach out to them in a way that you may not have done so in the past because of your medical background, and maybe even approach them after the inquest and say that you're sorry for their loss, because I think sometimes that's all somebody wants, is to hear somebody else say that they're sorry that somebody has died. You're not admitting guilt. You're not saying I'm to blame, you're far from saying that, but what you are saying is that you are a compassionate person and that you are sad for somebody else going through such a difficult time.
When somebody is shuffling lots of papers in the witness box or saying I'm not sure about that or I can't remember, then I think that really does make the family think that that person doesn't really know anything about what happened or that the person, the loved one, was forgotten because they don't even remember the case and referring to them as a case, as opposed to a person, again, has an impact on the family. Whereas, if you talk about Fred who died or Mabel who died or whoever, then it can make them think, make the family think, that you are dealing with the only person that they cared about as a person, as a human-being.
If a death has been referred to the coroner and there will be an inquest, then I think the trust and the doctors that were involved should offer the family a meeting, even before the inquest date has been discussed, to talk to them about what happened. Sometimes that will answer all the questions that the family might have, even before it even gets near to the inquest, and that might be soon after the death, but I think it should also happen or be offered at different times before the inquest because if it happens soon after the death, the family may still be grieving.
They may still feel find it difficult to assimilate some of the information or the information may bring up even more questions. So, offering more than one meeting, I think, will really, really help and ease some of the tensions that sometimes happens once it gets to the inquest, and those questions haven't already been answered or those meetings haven't been offered. I think it's really, really important and I've heard family say, you know, we asked for a meeting, but they didn't give us a meeting or we wanted to speak to them beforehand or we had lots of questions beforehand that they just ignored or they just didn't respond to, and I think that would really alleviate a lot of the tensions beforehand.