A number of jurisdictions, including England and Wales, require an Inquest following a death. A summary of the English system is set out below.
A coroner is appointed by the local authority and is an independent judicial office holder. Coroners investigate deaths if it appears that:
- The death was violent or unnatural
- The cause of death is unknown, or
- The person died in prison, police custody or another type of state detention.
Where a death was violent or unnatural, the coroner must hold an inquest. As such, for an air crash that causes a death, there will be an inquest. An inquest is a public fact-finding inquiry conducted by a coroner, with or without a jury, to determine the identity of the deceased, the place and time of death and how the deceased came by his or her death.
The coroner will normally wait for the AAIB to publish the Final Accident Report before setting a date for the full Inquest hearing, meaning that the inquest hearing is often more than 12 months from the date of the accident. The coroner is responsible for deciding the scope of the inquest and the evidence to be called. One or more AAIB inspectors will attend the inquest to provide technical explanation of the material contained in the accident report and answer questions about the investigation and the contents of the report. In addition to the AAIB, other witnesses required to give evidence at the inquest may include surviving victims, surviving aircrew, eye witnesses, representatives from the company that operated the aircraft, representatives from the company that maintained the aircraft, independent pilot experts, other relevant experts, the pathologist and members of the deseased's family.
After hearing the evidence, the coroner (or jury where there is one) will deliver the verdict. Possible verdicts include:
- Accident or misadventure
- Lawful or unlawful killing
- Open verdict (if there is insufficient evidence for any other verdict).
The coroner or jury may also provide a brief narrative with the verdict setting out the facts found surrounding the death.
If the inquest reveals continuing circumstances creating risks of other deaths and the coroner believes that action should be taken to prevent the occurrence or continuation of such circumstances, the coroner must report the matter to a person who he believes may have the power to take such action.
How the inquest can help the families find answers and with their civil litigation
Given that very few legal cases go to a full trial, the inquest may be the only opportunity for the families to formally question (under oath) the AAIB experts who conducted the air accident investigation and other witnessess and experts, some of whom may have been involved in the chain of events that led to the accident. Although the purpose of the inquest is not to determine civil or criminal liability, where the Final Air Accident Report does not identify the full chain of events or is inconclusive, questioning of witnesses by a specialist advocate can produce additional important evidence that can provide the families with a better understanding of what went wrong, which in turn can make a significant difference to the strength of their civil legal case and/ or the strategic direction of the case.
Jim Morris, Partner and head of the Aviation Team at Ashfords is a former RAF pilot and barrister. He is a specialist at conducting complex aviation inquest advocacy on behalf of families. Some examples of how his questioning of the AAIB and other aviation expert witnesses has benefitted families, their legal cases and has encouraged changes that have increased safety can be viewed by following the links below: