1. What is the purpose of an inquest?
  2. Why has it taken so long for the inquests to be dealt with?
  3. Why has Sir Robert Owen been appointed as Coroner?
  4. Will Sir Robert Owen continue to sit in the High Court?
  5. When did the Inquest start?
  6. How long do you expect the Inquest to go on for?
  7. Where are the hearings being held?
  8. Why were Solicitors and Counsel to the Inquest appointed?
  9. Do the media have access?
  10. Do the public have access?
  11. Are transcripts of proceedings and evidence made public?
  12. Who can be called to give evidence in an inquest?
  13. Can witnesses be compelled to attend or provide evidence for an inquest?
  14. What are the possible outcomes in an inquest?
  15. Who may take part in and can be represented at an inquest?
  16. Will there be a jury?

What is the purpose of an inquest?

Coroners are independent judicial officers who work within a legal framework established by Act of Parliament. A Coroner’s inquest is a process for investigating the factual circumstances of a death. It is a fact-finding inquiry to establish the answers to:

  • Who the deceased was
  • When and where the death occurred
  • How the deceased came by his or her death
  • Particulars required by the Registration Acts to be registered concerning the death

The proceedings and evidence are aimed solely at ascertaining the answers to these questions. Expressions of opinion on any other matter – for example, determining criminal or civil liability – are not allowed. However, the Coroner does have the power to investigate not just the main cause of death, but also “any acts or omissions which directly led to the cause of death”. More information on the role of a Coroner.

Why has it taken so long for the inquests to be dealt with?

The Coroner’s Act 1988 requires a Coroner to hold an inquest when someone dies a violent or unnatural death. An inquest is a search for the truth relating to that death and coroners frequently find facts and learn lessons from unnatural deaths after the passage of time.

The inquest into the death of Alexander Litvinenko was generally adjourned for nearly 5 years while there was thought to be a prospect of criminal proceedings being brought. By the time of the pre-inquest review held by the Coroner for Inner North London, Dr Andrew Reid, in October 2011, it was clear that no criminal prosecutions would be brought because the two men suspected by police of murdering Mr Litvinenko are outside the UK. Work has been undertaken since then on preparing the inquest for hearing.

Why has Sir Robert Owen been appointed as Coroner?

Because of the exceptional circumstances of the death of Alexander Litvinenko it was thought sensible to have a senior judge to conduct the Inquest. Sir Robert Owen is a judge of the High Court, with wide ranging experience across the civil and criminal jurisdictions. He was nominated for this role by the Lord Chief Justice.

Will Sir Robert Owen continue to sit in the High Court?

Sir Robert Owen will be absent from the High Court for the duration of the proceedings.

When did the Inquest start?

The inquest formally resumed on Thursday 13 October 2011. A timetable for the inquest hearing will be established by Sir Robert in due course.

How long do you expect the Inquest to go on for?

Sir Robert Owen is yet to decide upon the scope of the issues which will be examined during the inquest hearing. The duration of the inquest hearing will be dependent on the scope of the issues to be covered.

Where are the hearings being held?

A hearing venue for the Inquest is yet to be identified, but section 5 of the Coroners Act 1988 makes clear that the inquest hearing must be held within the boundaries of the coroner’s district.

Why were Solicitors and Counsel to the Inquest appointed?

The Coroner for Inner North London, Dr Andrew Reid, decided that it was necessary due to the complexity of the issues involved to appoint Solicitors and Counsel to the Inquest.

The role of Solicitor to the Inquest is varied and includes assisting the Assistant Deputy Coroner to conduct the investigation, obtaining evidence, instructing counsel to the inquest, dealing with witnesses, interested persons and their legal representatives.

The role of Counsel to the Inquest is varied and includes presenting evidence, questioning witnesses and making legal submissions.

Do the media have access?

Yes. However, space in any courtroom venue for the Inquest is likely to be limited and priority is given to Interested Persons and their legal representatives.

It is planned to provide greater press and public access to proceedings through the provision of a media facility with audio and visual links to the court room.

The Inquest hearing will be held in a courtroom, which will be subject to the same restrictions as would apply to normal court proceedings. When the court is sitting the use of mobile telephones, other communications or recording equipment, cameras and personal stereos is strictly prohibited.

Do the public have access?

Yes. However, space in any courtroom venue for the Inquest is necessarily limited and priority is given to Interested Persons and their legal representatives. It is intended that public access to the proceedings will be available through the provision of a court annex with audio and visual links to the court room.

Are transcripts of proceedings and evidence made public?

Sir Robert Owen wishes to publish on this website transcripts of proceedings that take place in open court. Where possible, Sir Robert Owen will also publish evidence seen and heard in open court during the course of the Inquest.

Who can be called to give evidence in an inquest?

Sir Robert Owen is solely responsible for deciding which witnesses will be heard and the legitimate scope of questions, although of course he intends to canvas views on this with the Interested Persons in advance. Witnesses who may be called to give evidence will be those who can provide material and relevant evidence on the issues identified.

Can witnesses be compelled to attend or provide evidence for an inquest?

The Coroner can compel witnesses to give evidence if they are in the jurisdiction and are properly summonsed. If witnesses are outside the jurisdiction the Coroner can ask the authorities concerned to exercise their powers, which may vary according to the relevant jurisdiction.

What are the possible outcomes in an inquest?

Possible verdicts include: natural causes, accident, suicide, unlawful or lawful killing, industrial disease, and open verdicts (where there is insufficient evidence for any other verdict). There may also be a narrative verdict which sets out in narrative form how the person died.

The Coroner may also report the death to any appropriate person or authority, if action is needed to prevent more deaths in similar circumstances.

Who may take part in and can be represented at an inquest?

Anyone deemed by the Coroner to have what is called “a proper interest” may ask relevant questions of a witness at an inquest. They can be:

  • a parent, spouse, child, partner and representing the estate of the deceased;
  • anyone who gains from a life insurance policy on the deceased;
  • any insurer having issued such a policy;
  • anyone whose actions the Coroner believes may have caused or contributed to the death, accidentally or otherwise;
  • the chief officer of police (who may only ask witnesses questions through a lawyer);
  • any person appointed by a government department to attend the inquest;
  • anyone else who the coroner decides also has a proper interest.

Will there be a jury?

Sir Robert Owen, has yet to determine whether this is an inquest that requires a jury. The cases in which a jury needs to be called are set out in the Coroners Act 1988 and will be subject to submissions at a later date.