This article is the second part to the article published in February entitled Being an Inquest Witness: Part 1 - Statement Writing. As the previous article set out, the role of a witness in an inquest is to assist the Coroner in the conduct of his investigation. Witnesses will be asked to produce a witness statement, and then if the Coroner requires further information from the author of the statement, he may require that witness to attend the inquest in person to give oral evidence. This article sets out key tips on how to prepare and what to expect at an inquest.
- Know your statement and any other relevant documents - months may pass between writing your statement and the actual inquest so always make sure you have re-read and are comfortable with your statement, and any other relevant documents such as the incident report, before attending the inquest.
- Although a copy of your statement will be provided when you are giving your evidence, where possible please take a copy of your statement with you in case you want to check anything before you are called to give evidence.
On the day
- Arrive in good time and make sure you have enough money for parking meters – it is probably best to research where you are going to park beforehand, especially if you do not know the area.
- Ensure you have the contact telephone number of your legal representative (if represented) or the Coroner's Court just in case you get lost or are running late for any legitimate reason.
- Dress appropriately for the situation - not only do you want to be taken seriously but you also want to come across as compassionate and caring. Therefore it is best to keep it simple, stick to smart clothing and no bright colours.
- By all means, speak to the family where appropriate – you will obviously be sorry for their loss and there is no reason not to say so. However do not discuss with the family or any other Party details of the inquest evidence.
- Witnesses waiting to give evidence sit in the courtroom and listen to the hearing (this is not a criminal trial).
- Witnesses at an inquest must be either sworn in or give an affirmation. It is best to decide beforehand which of these you will choose. In either case the court officer will assist you.
- Always refer to the Coroner as Sir or Ma'am.
- The Coroner will ask you questions first and then when he has finished his examination, the family of the Deceased (or their lawyer) are permitted to ask questions to clarify any issue they wish to understand. After this any other Interested Party to the inquest will have the opportunity to ask questions. If you have legal representation, at this stage your representative will have the opportunity to ask any questions to draw out any necessary points or to clarify any areas of uncertainty. The Coroner will likewise have a further opportunity to ask questions to clarify or make sense of anything which he or she has heard.
- Address all your answers to the Coroner (or jury if there is one) – not only because you are there to assist the Coroner (or jury) to come to a decision but this should also help to keep you calm and focused.
- Keep your voice up - if you speak quietly you will only be asked to repeat what you have said.
- If you do not understand a question, say so.
- Try to avoid or explain jargon or any terminology in a way that is easily understood.
- If it is necessary to refer to any records during the inquest before you can reasonably answer a question, ask the Coroner for the opportunity to do so.
- Try to keep calm – stress can lead to questions from the family or others sometimes appearing confrontational. Try not to become defensive and answer as fully and straightforwardly as possible.
- Take a pause before answering a question – this will give you time to think about what you are going to say. Remember that some lawyers will ask their questions quickly, in the hope that you will respond at the same speed and say something you would not otherwise have said. Go at your own pace and consider your answers carefully.
- Do not be afraid to indicate to the Coroner if you are unable to answer a question, i.e. because you were not present, it is a question which is outside the scope of your expertise, or because you cannot remember – it is much better to be honest in such a situation rather than trying to provide an answer; otherwise you risk becoming muddled and less credible.
After giving your evidence you may be formally dismissed or you may not. If you are formally dismissed you may leave the Court and do not have to return. If you are not formally dismissed this will be because the Coroner feels that you may be able to help with clarifying further points after other evidence has been heard. If this is the case do not panic, it does not mean that you were a bad witness, it just means that an area in which you have expertise or an event at which you were present may become relevant again later in the inquest, and the Coroner may need your assistance again.
If you are formally dismissed we would often recommend staying for the remainder of the inquest. This will help to give you a clear picture of the entire process and should hopefully offer you, as well as the family, some closure in the matter.