An inquest to investigate a person’s death will be held if the cause of death is unknown, the death was as a result of violence or the person died in custody or any other state detention.
The purpose of an inquest is to try to work out how, when and where the person died. This can help family and friends of the deceased and provide important information to prevent future risks to life.
An independent public inquest is of particular importance when a person has died at the hands of the state (e.g. in a police shooting, or because of negligence) or while in state custody (e.g. deaths in prison or immigration detention).
Inquests must be held with a jury if there is suspicion that:
- A person died in state detention in violent circumstances or where the cause of death is unknown; or
- The death resulted from the act or omission of a police officer;
- The death was caused by an accident of the type that has to be reported, or by poisoning or disease.
The right to life under Article 2 of the Human Rights Act requires that an effective and proper investigation be carried out into all deaths caused by the state. In particular the right requires that such an investigation must be:
- Open to public scrutiny; and
- Support the participation of the next-of-kin.
It is vitally important that inquests into deaths where the state may be implicated are open to public scrutiny and have the full participation of the next of kin of the deceased.
Transparency is particularly important to bring to light any wrongdoing, negligence or systematic failings in the system.
From 2008 to 2012 there were a number of unsuccessful attempts to change the law to allow sensitive inquests - into deaths where the state could be implicated - to be held in secret in whole or in part and without a jury. After concerted cross-party opposition and lobbying by Liberty, Inquest and JUSTICE, all of these proposals were dropped. Read about Liberty's most recent campaign against secret inquests.
However alternative proposals were narrowly voted into law, which allow the Lord Chancellor to effectively replace certain public inquests with an inquiry under the Inquiries Act 2005.
This means that investigations into the circumstances around certain deaths can be shrouded in secrecy:
- Inquests can be replaced with inquiries at the behest of the executive;
- The Minister or Chair of an inquiry can restrict attendance, including that of bereaved relatives, legal representatives and journalists;
- The final report setting out facts and conclusions surrounding a death can be heavily redacted or not made public at all.
Secret inquiries in the place of public inquests undermine the openness of the inquest system, allowing for a parallel justice system where inquiries into the most controversial and contentious deaths can be carried out in private – shutting out bereaved families and the public from investigations.
We believe that these powers could breach of Article 2 of the Human Rights Act (the right to life), which requires a full and public investigation into the cause of any death in which the state may have had some involvement. They are an assault on open justice, Government transparency and accountability and threaten the rights of victims' families.