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  • Author or Editor: Edward Kirton-Darling x
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The Contemporary Inquest in Context

When a death is investigated by a coroner, what is the place of the family in that process?

This accessibly written book draws together empirical, theoretical and historical perspectives to develop a rich, nuanced analysis of the contemporary inquest system in England and Wales. It investigates theories of kinship drawn from socio-legal research and analyses law, accountability and the legal process.

Excerpts of conversations with coroners and officers offer real insights into how the role of family can be understood and who family is perceived to be, and further, how their participation fundamentally shapes the investigation into a death.

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This chapter examines the historic inquest jurisdiction. It argues that history has a particularly important place in understandings of the inquest, and histories of the inquest can reinforce or disrupt the way in which the system is understood. It unpicks the legal authority of the historic Coroner and the jury, and the place of kinship in the historic jurisdiction. It focuses in particular on the deodand, an animal or inanimate object declared by the jury to be responsible for the death. This was sometimes used to compensate the bereaved family and, upon its abolition in 1846, was replaced with the first Fatal Accidents Act, which allowed dependants to claim damages for negligently caused death.

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This chapter examines the rise of the modern form of the inquest, arguing that it was a jurisdiction in which the diminishing role of the community left an understanding of the inquest as a jurisdiction with a limited expert medico-legal role. It analyses the role of notification of family and legal devices aimed at enabling their participation, and, drawing on jurisprudential analysis of the conceptual underpinnings of the legal concept of jurisdiction, argues these can be understood as technologies of jurisdiction – legal devices which produce jurisdiction. It considers the way in which Article 2 ECHR has impacted on inquest law and argues that it can be seen to have produced a new form of the inquest – the contemporary inquest – in which family have moved from assistants to the Coroner in a limited inquiry to essential participants who are involved as of right.

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This chapter introduces my empirical material, which is then explored further in Chapters 5, 6 and 7. It focuses on the concept of next of kin and their notification. Drawing on vignettes used in interviews with Coroners and their officers, it examines who is understood as falling within the category of next of kin, and how approaches to decisions about next of kin reveal the importance of analysing systemic decision making. It argues that two frames emerge from that analysis, which link to the historic and jurisprudential analysis in Chapters 2 and 3. These frames are ways of understanding the inquest and the role of kinship within it. One frame understands the inquest as solely a space for expert, technocratic accountability, while the other frame understands it as a process responsible for seeking to combine accountabilities – bringing together a technocratic form with a community form of accountability.

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This chapter focuses on decisions relating to the body of the deceased, and the role that family are understood to play in relation to those decisions and the body itself. These decisions include questions about post-mortems and about who should be entitled to receive the body when the inquest system no longer needs it, and raise particular questions relating to different religious and cultural approaches to the body. It argues that these questions are understood as questions of dignity, but that dignity can take different forms. To examine this, drawing on jurisprudential scholarship, it analyses approaches to dignity in relation to exhumation, and differentiates between an approach based on civility and an understanding based on conscience. It argues that these two frames correspond to those framings discussed in Chapter 4 and uses these conceptual frames to explore the empirical data.

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This chapter focuses on the pre-hearing process in the inquest and the ways in which kin are enabled to participate in those investigations. It focuses in particular on the question of who gets to be an interested person (with rights which include the right to ask questions) and the disclosure of documents before the hearing. It develops a theme from the two preceding chapters about a preference for implicit, provisional decision making, and suggests that when a decision is required, the two different framings of accountability can be identified in the responses interviewees gave.

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This chapter examines the ways in which interviewees understand the family’s engagement with the construction of the public space of the inquest hearing. It argues that reforms have produced a hearing which can be substantively more or less public in terms of what is covered and who is there to listen, and the family play a central role in determining how it is shaped. To explore this issue, it examines the different spaces in which inquests take place, before exploring order, disorder and the role of lawyers. It then discusses the ways in which the hearing can be more or less public in more detail, before concluding with a focus on the emphasis of meaningfulness in both the hearing and conclusions of the inquest

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This chapter concludes the discussion, drawing together threads from the preceding chapters. It reflects on policy and potential future directions of the inquest, including funding for lawyers for the bereaved, the local nature of the inquest service and understandings of the meaning of kinship at the inquest. It concludes with reflections on academic scholarship and conceptual questions about kinship, death and the inquest process, including the ways in which practices play a central role in producing kinship in the inquest process.

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This chapter introduces the inquest system, including the paradoxes which exist in this unique jurisdiction. It outlines the inquest process and the approach the book will take in relation to analysis of it, including the ways in which the inquest can be understood as having historic, modern and contemporary forms. It introduces the conceptual materials upon which the book draws, including three key themes of (1) kinship, (2) different forms of accountability (technocratic accountability and community or convivial accountability), and (3) process, procedure and jurisdiction. It introduces the methods used in the empirical research.

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