A GP in the coroner's court

Dr Penny Edrich explains how to prepare if you are asked to attend an inquest.

As a GP, you may at some stage be called upon to attend the coroner's court as a witness. This may occur when a death is still considered unexplained after a postmortem, or where there is suspicion of a violent or unnatural death, or where it took place in prison or police custody.

A summons to appear at the coroner's court can be quite unexpected and may appear rather daunting. It is best to be as well prepared as possible beforehand.

What is an inquest?

An inquest is a limited, fact-finding inquiry to establish who has died and how, when and where the death occurred. An inquest does not establish any matter of liability or blame. The coroner must reach a conclusion, or verdict, about such deaths (for example, accident, misadventure, suicide and so on).

An inquest is usually opened soon after a death, to record that the death has occurred, to identify the deceased and to enable the coroner to issue the authority for burial or cremation to take place with no unnecessary delay.

The inquest is adjourned until any other investigations and any inquiries instigated by the coroner have been completed. This may take three or four months, with some cases taking longer if the inquiries prove to be complicated. The inquest is then resumed and concluded.

When an inquest is held, the coroner must inform:

- The married or civil partner of the deceased.

- The nearest relative (if different from the above).

- The personal representative (if different from the above).

Relatives can attend and question witnesses, but only about the medical cause and circumstances of the death. They may also ask a lawyer to represent them.

Coroner's court

You may be requested informally to attend the coroner's court, or you may receive a formal summons - either way, attendance is compulsory if you reside in England or Wales.

The coroner will decide who to call as witnesses, and the general order of the witnesses appearing.

On the day of the inquest, the coroner's officer will familiarise you with the layout and procedures of the court before the inquest starts. It is helpful to arrive half an hour early to allow time for this.

You will be asked if you wish to swear on the Bible or pledge an affirmation. Any other holy book may be used with prior notice to the court.

The court generally has separate waiting areas for witnesses and the family of the deceased. It is prudent to arrive in good time to determine your correct waiting area, causing minimal distress to families.

The press and other members of the public may be in attendance, because the court is open to interested parties. Administrative staff may be present to keep notes of the proceedings and statements may be audio or video recorded.

Preparation

Preparation of your facts is vital - you will be questioned in a witness stand under oath, but will be allowed to refer to notes or say you do not know the answer to a question. The process is about establishing facts.

Opinion may be offered only if it is stated as such. You should go through the case notes in detail beforehand, and print pages and make summaries as needed, especially involving times and dates.

It may be prudent to involve your medical defence organisation and to discuss the case with colleagues, depending on the situation.

The LMC can also advise about further sources of help or support, should you need them.

Reimbursement of loss of income will not cover the locum costs incurred, so internal arrangements for cover may be preferable. You should have enough notice to arrange cover. The court may be able to rearrange a date if there would be significant impact on your practice on the date initially specified.

On the day

You will be called to the witness box to make your oath and give evidence. The coroner asks question first, followed by questions from 'properly interested persons' (relatives of the deceased or anyone else directly connected with the death).

Once your evidence has been given, you are free to leave, but you may stay to watch proceedings. The coroner will come to a verdict at the end of the inquest, but this may not be on the day itself. You may request a copy of the verdict.

A debriefing session with a colleague, friend or GP learning group can often be helpful after the event. A summary added to your appraisal folder can be useful for reflecting on the event at a later date.

  • Dr Edrich is a GP in north Somerset

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