Collision course: inquests and road traffic deaths investigated
Government figures show that there were 1810 deaths on the roads in Great Britain in the year ending September 2016. This is an increase of 2% on the previous year’s figures and the number of road deaths has been slowly increasing since 2013.
An inquest will usually be held on each occasion that there is violent and unnatural death. This means that when someone dies in a road traffic collision, an inquest is highly likely to take place.
An inquest is an investigation to ascertain:
- The facts of who the deceased was
- Where they died
- When they died
- How they died.
The question of how someone came by their death is the most contentious, usually because it is the most important for those who have lost a loved one, particularly if they feel another party was potentially culpable. The question of ‘how’ someone came by their death is equally the one with the most serious ramifications.
Road traffic collision
A road traffic collision in which one or more people die will be investigated by the police who will consider whether anyone should be prosecuted. The criminal investigation, and any subsequent proceedings, take primacy and the inquest process will be suspended until the conclusion of the criminal process.
Not every criminal investigation will result in someone being prosecuted. This means that an inquest may well be the first time that evidence is formally heard. At the inquest witnesses can also be questioned about the incident.
Before an inquest takes place, the coroner must review the evidence and determine who, if anyone, should be formally identified as an ‘interested person’.
A deceased’s spouse, parent or child has a right to be identified as an interested person. Any person whose act or omission, in the opinion of the coroner, may have caused or contributed to the death will also be identified as an interested person. This means that the driver of a vehicle involved in an accident could well find themselves being identified as an interested person, even if a police investigation took place and they were not prosecuted.
An interested person has the opportunity to:
- Be more involved in the inquest process
- Be legally represented
- Receive a copy of the evidence in advance of the inquest
- Ask questions of other witnesses at the inquest.
Bearing in mind that one of the objectives of an inquest is to identify how a person died, anyone who is an interested person — especially as a consequence of an act or omission which may have caused or contributed to the death — should approach the inquest process with seriousness and caution.
Regulation, regulation, regulation
In 2013, the coronial system underwent significant changes with the implementation of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009 and the Coroner’s Rules 2013.
The inquest process has become increasingly regulated and technical, with more defined rules surrounding:
- Pre-inquests processes
- The admissibility of evidence and its presentation during the proceedings
- Disclosure of evidence to interested persons
- Conclusions which may be reached at the end of an inquest.
It should also not be forgotten that, when an inquest takes place in respect of a death following a road accident, some of the evidence produced is likely to be technical collision evidence from an expert.
Additionally there are now increased duties on a coroner to prepare reports to prevent future deaths where appropriate. In recent years, there has been a significant increase in the use of judicial review processes to challenge coroner’s processes and decisions.
An inquest is often the first and only time when evidence can be tested by an interested person. Coroners recognise the importance of this for those involved and are increasingly willing to allow detailed questioning of witnesses at an inquest (particularly from the representatives of the deceased’s family). Whilst inquest hearings are not meant to be about apportioning blame, the reality can often be very different, especially if you are the one being questioned.
Whilst the coroner should prevent inappropriate questioning, it is often the legal representative for the interested person who is first to raise concerns.
Effective questioning of witnesses (such as the attending police officers or witnesses to the collision) may prove key in influencing how the evidence is viewed and ultimately the coroner’s conclusion and/or the content of any narrative judgement.
The conclusion of an inquest can be significant. It can result in the Crown Prosecution Service reviewing a previous decision not to prosecute. Alternatively, it can have a significant impact on any civil proceedings.
Through early engagement with the coroner and representation at the inquest there are opportunities for civil defendants to review, understand and challenge evidence and advance arguments which may be relevant to a civil claim, thus protecting their position from possible damaging conclusions.