Bereaved families often don’t know rights at inquests, commission says

IHREC warns of serious shortcomings in coronial process during time of trauma and stress

The rights of bereaved families at inquests are not always vindicated because they do not understand the process, or their rights at it, the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission (IHREC) warns.

It says too many families, at a time of huge trauma and distress, are going into coroners’ courts not knowing properly why an inquest is being held, what its purpose is or how they can engage with it. This is, in some cases, preventing them from vindicating the rights of their loved ones who may have died in contested and contentious circumstances.

An inquest must be held where a death may have occurred in a violent or unnatural way, in sudden or unknown circumstances or where it is required by law – such as a death in police or prison custody, in a workplace, in a road traffic accident or where a woman’s death may be related to pregnancy or childbirth.

On Friday the commission publishes a booklet, Information on the Rights of Families at Inquests. The 34-page leaflet sets out the reasons for an inquest, how it proceeds, when a family has a right to legal aid and legal representation at their loved one’s inquest, the kind of information a family has a right to before the inquest begins, and, how to get that.

Having spoken to bereaved families about their experience of the coronial process the commission found many experienced serious shortcomings.

“Inquests come at a time of intense trauma and personal stress,” said a spokesman. “It’s an experience hopefully a family will have to go through only once and yet at the same time it’s often a process you only learn about while going though it. It is hoped this new information note will help families prepare and engage with the process and to vindicate their rights at it.”

The publication comes as the Irish Council for Civil Liberties (ICCL) ramps up its campaign for “root and branch” reform of the coronial process. In a report it published last year it described the coroners’ courts system as “decreasingly fit for purpose” and where “ongoing human rights violations” for bereaved families were occurring.

It cited such issues, following engagement with families, including lack of legal representation for families, lack of compassion, and, concerns about partiality of coroners.

According to the IHREC there were 2,101 inquests last year – at a time when many were postponed due to Covid restrictions.