What happens at an inquest and what can the press report?

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Reporting on inquests is one of the most difficult jobs faced by any journalist, but there are important reasons why local newspapers attend coroner’s court hearings and report on proceedings.

Reporters are acutely aware that they are often dealing with people at a deeply distressing time and that finding a balance between sensitivity and accurate reporting is essential.

It is important to stress that at no point does a reporter wish to upset or distress anyone – particularly members of the deceased’s family.

The press relies on coroner’s courts to make families aware that we may attend their loved one’s inquest.

Here we will try and answer some of your questions about what will happen, what can be reported and why.

What is an inquest?

An inquest will be held regarding sudden, unexplained or suspicious deaths.

Inquests determine how a person died and ensure that lessons can be learned.

Except in exceptional circumstances, inquests are always held in open court, meaning any member of the public or press can attend.

The coroner’s court support service website says: “An inquest is to determine how, when and where someone has died, but not why.

“It is an investigation to ascertain the facts concerning a death and does not apportion blame on any individual.”

Inquests are not usually heard in front of a jury; however there are cases in which it is mandatory.

Why do we report on them?

There are three main reasons why it is important to cover an inquest.

For justice to be done, it must be seen to be done – in this regard a coroner’s court is no different to any other court of law.

Reporters have a duty to ensure that hearings are a matter of public record.

The aim of this is to ensure that all cases are treated fairly and with respect.

It is important to understand that newspapers do not pass judgement, we simply report what has happened.

Secondly, an inquest will often bring up topics that require examination.

There is a public interest in reporting inquests to ensure that lessons can be learned so that others can avoid the same fate.

The independent press standards organisation (IPSO) gives advice for journalists reporting on inquests, it says: “Newspapers might report on inquests for a number of reasons – to make sure that the public understands how and why a person has died; to draw attention to the circumstances of a death, in the hope that this will prevent other such deaths in the future; or to clear up any suspicions about a person’s death.”

Thirdly, there is a public interest in making clear the circumstance surrounding a person’s death.

IPSO says: “There is a public interest in the reporting of inquests, which are public events in any case. In reporting an inquest, a journalist may clear up any rumours or suspicion about the death.

“They may also draw attention to circumstances which may lead to further deaths or injuries if no preventative action is taken.”

What can the press report?

Many families can be shocked or upset to find the press in attendance at their loved one’s inquest. But the press – along with members of the public – are legally allowed to attend.

Coroners courts are courts of law and reports of these are covered by something called absolute privilege. This means that a press report can contain any details given in open court, so long as the report is a fair, accurate and contemporaneous account of those proceedings.

Sometimes, a coroner can impose a reporting restriction on certain details. Judges can place a restriction on the naming of children in court. However, this restriction doesn’t apply when the child is deceased, so if it’s a child’s inquest, they can be named.

Reporters are allowed to make notes – either with a notepad and pen or on an electronic device – during proceedings. They can also use social media. Recordings and taking photographs are illegal (for anyone, not just the press) in court.

Can the press approach me at an inquest?

We are regulated by IPSO and the guidelines state that reporting on inquests must be done with sensitivity.

Yes, the press can approach you at an inquest. Generally, reporters will not approach a family before an inquest as we know it’s a tough and emotional day.

Afterwards, you may be approached by a journalist who will ask if you want to discuss the outcome and/or give a tribute to your loved one. Some families do want to do this, others don’t – both are perfectly understandable.

Journalists are duty-bound to include the facts of the case and must always report the coroner’s conclusion.

Reporters are mindful that we are reporting on someone’s death and that their family, friends and loved ones may read your article.

What about inquests reports of suicides?

When reporting someone’s suicide, journalists cannot include excessive details about how they died.

This is to help prevent other people from using the details which might result in them taking their own life in a similar way.

Suicide notes are not usually read out during an inquest, but journalists are free to report the contents if they are.

We try to include helpline information – specifically Samaritans – on reports of inquests about suicides.

Helplines

If you would like any help with bereavement, loss or mental wellbeing, here are some helpline numbers

You can call the Samaritans on 116 123

Child Bereavement UK 0800 028 8840 childbereavementuk.org

Cruse Bereavement Care 0808 808 1677 cruse.org.uk 

Survivors of Bereavement by Suicide (SOBS) 0300 111 5065 uksobs.org