- An inquest is a fact-finding inquiry, not a trial.
- It is held by a coroner when they decide a death may not be due to natural causes, or where the cause of death is not known.
- You might be asked to give statements about the care and treatment you provided to patients who have died and, if required, attend inquests as a witness.
Types of cases to refer
Regulations introduced in October 2019 in England and Wales mean doctors must notify the coroner of certain categories of deaths.
The Notification of Deaths Regulations 2019 require a medical practitioner (who is registered with the GMC and has a licence to practice) to make a notification to the senior coroner in the area where the deceased's body lies, under certain circumstances. Some of the relevant circumstances surrounding death which need to be reported to the coroner include:
- poisoning, including by an otherwise benign substance (such as salt/sodium) and refers to either deliberate or accidental intake of poison
- the use of a medical product, controlled drug or psychoactive substance
- violence, trauma or injury (including those that are self-inflicted as well as assaults and accidents)
- neglect, including self-neglect
- death due to a person undergoing a treatment or procedure of a medical or similar nature
- an injury or disease attributable to a person's employment
- where the practitioner suspects the person's death was unnatural
- deaths in custody or state detention
- cause of death or identity of the deceased is unknown.
You should be familiar with the requirements for completing medical certificates of the cause of death (MCCD) and only sign statements you believe to be true. The MCCD must be completed by an attending medical practitioner who has seen the deceased either in the 14 days before the date of death, or after death. If you can't complete the MCCD, you should refer the matter to the coroner and tell the deceased's family.
Referring a death to the coroner
The coroner receives notifications from a number of sources, including doctors, the police, medical referees and the registrar of births, deaths and marriages. Even if you are aware that a death has already been reported to the coroner - for example, by the deceased person's family or the police - the regulations make clear you must still report the death, to make sure all the relevant information is given to the coroner. This is the case regardless of how much time has passed since the death.
Where the death is suspicious, it is important to inform the police straight away. For deaths that are not suspicious, but need to be reported to the coroner, the expectation is that this will be done as soon as reasonably practicable. The guidance also recommends that doctors making a notification to the coroner include their GMC number as part of the 'further information that they consider to be relevant to the coroner'.
The coroner's investigations
Once a death has been referred, the coroner will investigate the circumstances in which it occurred. This can involve ordering a post-mortem as part of the investigations.
Inquiries are usually conducted by the coroner's officer, who is often also a police officer. You should cooperate fully by providing medical records and information if you're asked to.
Coroners and confidentiality
Although the duty of confidentiality still applies after the death of a patient, there is an exception when giving information to the coroner (or procurator fiscal in Scotland).
The Coroners and Justice Act 2009 introduced the power to require the production of documents to the coroner. Not doing so could result in a fine and may also constitute a criminal offence.
If the coroner asks for information about living patients as part of the inquiry, you normally shouldn't hand this over before the inquest without the patient's consent. However, the coroner can order you to do so during the inquest. In this situation, it could well be prudent to contact the MDU for advice and you may need to seek an adjournment in order to enable you to do so.
In the case of a suspected murder or manslaughter, the coroner will pass the investigation to the police, to whom you can then disclose the medical notes directly.
Scotland - Fatal Accident Inquiries (FAIs)
All sudden, suspicious, accidental, unexpected and unexplained deaths in Scotland are investigated by the procurator fiscal, rather than a coroner's office.
Under Section 1 of the Fatal Accidents and Sudden Deaths Inquiry (Scotland) Act 1976, the procurator fiscal may hold a public inquiry before a sheriff into any death which is sudden, suspicious or unexplained, or gives rise to serious public concern.
At the conclusion of the FAI, the sheriff issues a final report - the determination - which includes:
- details of the time, place and cause of death
- any reasonable precautions which could have prevented the death
- defects in any system that contributed to the death
- any other relevant facts.
Some other key points of FAIs include:
- there is no automatic right to a public inquiry unless the death occurred in custody or in the course of the deceased's employment
- doctors can be ordered to give evidence and answer any questions put to them at the inquiry, although no witness is obliged to answer questions which could result in an incriminating answer
- any party who can show a relevant interest in the proceedings may attend the FAI, be legally represented, present evidence and question witnesses.
There are some differences in the way the coronial system operates in Northern Ireland. If you need details, speak to the MDU's medico-legal advisers.
I am a GP. The relatives of a deceased patient will be legally represented at a forthcoming inquest and their solicitors have asked for copies of the records.
I have kept a copy set as the originals are with the coroner. Do I have to disclose the records?
The coroner should be informed of this request. The Access to Health Records Act 1990 entitles the patient's representative to have copies of any medical records made on or after 1 November 1991.
Access to the records of a dead patient can, however, be withheld if you believe the information was provided by the patient in the expectation that it would not be disclosed to the applicant. This caveat should be noted on the records.
A patient, a woman in her 60s, died recently. She had only been on my list for six months and I saw her on one occasion three months before her death. I was aware from her notes of a problem with alcohol abuse and her relatives now tell me that she was neglecting herself.
In short, I don't know whether I could sign a death certificate. Should I ask the coroner's permission?
The coroner can't give you authority to sign a death certificate. A doctor attending the deceased patient in her last illness is required by statute to complete a death certificate, giving the cause of death to the best of their knowledge and belief.
If, as it appears, you feel you are without the knowledge and belief to complete the certificate, then it can be completed to show that the death has been reported to the coroner. The registrar cannot register the death until the coroner has finished their inquiries.
If a medical examiner has been appointed in their locality doctors may wish to discuss the cause of death with them in the first instance, which may resolve any uncertainty about the cause of death.
Where a medical examiner has not yet been appointed or where the uncertainty is unresolved, doctors may wish to avoid delay by reporting a death informally to the coroner and seeking reassurance to issue a death certificate.
However, on receiving this reassurance, the doctor should not initial the certificate to indicate that the coroner has been informed. If it is initialled, the death cannot be registered without the coroner's authority, which produces the very delay that the doctor sought to avoid.
This guidance was correct at publication 25/02/2020. It is intended as general guidance for members only. If you are a member and need specific advice relating to your own circumstances, please contact one of our advisers.