An inquest is an inquiry or investigation into the cause of death where death is apparently not due to natural causes. It is done in order to identify the deceased person, place of death, time of death and cause of death. This method of inquiry was first developed in Scandinavia and the Carolingian empire before the end of the 10th century.
An inquest helps in safeguarding the legal rights of the victim’s family by knowing full and accurate facts about their loved one’s death. Inquest is a fact- finding process. It is usually held if the cause of death is not clearly certified by the post-mortem examination report and a formal request is .
It is done in cases of sudden death, suicide, homicide, infanticide, death due to accident, poisoning, drug mishap, unexplained death, death under anesthesia or an operation table or from postoperative shock, death due to medical negligence, death of a convict in jail, police custody, mental hospital or correctional school, dowry deaths (in India), death due to industrial disease (not held in India).
Types of Inquest
There are 5 different types of inquests:
- Police inquest
- Magistrate inquest
- Coroner inquest
- Medical examiner’s system
- Procurator fiscal
In India we only conduct police and magistrate inquest.
1. Police Inquest
It is conducted by the police officer, usually not below the rank of police sub-inspector. It is held under section 174 of Cr.P.C. The officer who conducts the inquiry is known as investigating officer (IO).
On receipt of information about any sudden, suspicious or unnatural death of any person, the IO forwards the information to the nearest magistrate and proceeds to the place where the dead body is lying and investigation is made in the presence of two or more responsible persons of that area called as panchas. No police officer can order for exhumation. The IO then generates a report which is known as Panchnama.
Panchnama should be a handwritten document prepared in two copies, the inked one and its carbon copy. It includes the description of the crime scene, initial investigation like the apparent cause of death, injuries present on the body and so on. After the report is made it is signed by the panchas and the IO and the dead body is forwarded to the nearest government doctor with the requisition and a copy of the inquest report (Panchnama).
2. Magistrate Inquest
It is considered to be superior to police inquest and is conducted by District Magistrate, Sub-divisional Magistrate or any other Executive Magistrate. They are empowered on behalf of the state government or the district magistrate such as tehsildar, collector or deputy collector.
It is done in circumstances like death in prison, death in police custody, dowry death, death in a mental hospital, death due to police firing. The magistrate can also conduct an inquest in addition to the police inquest. Magistrate can order for exhumation of body.
3. Coroner’s Inquest
Coroner’s court is only court of inquiry into the cause of death and as part of the investigation the court examines witnesses on oath and can record it as evidence. After examining the body, the court decides whether or not an autopsy is required. The court can also order for exhumation. After the inquiry is completed, the coroner finds the verdict as to the cause of death. If the accused was not found the coroner returns with an open verdict.
It was held in Kolkata and Mumbai in India but later was abolished in Kolkata and discontinued on 29 July 1999 in Mumbai. Under the Coroner’s Act 1871, a coroner who is an officer of the rank of First Class Magistrate, appointed by the state government is empowered to inquire about any unnatural, suspicious death or death occurring in jail. The coroner may be a doctor, lawyer or both.
4. Medical Examiner System
It is prevalent in most states of the USA and is done by a Medical Examiner who is also a forensic pathologist. He does not have any judicial powers and so cannot examine the witness under oath and does not have the authority to arrest any person. All sorts of sudden, unnatural, suspicious deaths are analyzed by the Medical Examiner. In India, this type of inquest is not followed.
5. Procurator Fiscal
Procurator fiscal is a public prosecutor who can investigate criminal matters, investigate sudden, unnatural or suspicious deaths as well as fatal accidents. He can request an autopsy which will be performed by a forensic pathologist and can present the case for the prosecution in the courts.
An inquest and the report made by the officer is of what he himself observed and found and hence is of high evidentiary value. The main objective of conducting an inquest is to find whether the death is unnatural or suspicious and if so, then what was the cause of death.
It does not look into details of the accused like who, how and why was the victim assaulted. The law commission of India in its 206th Report has recommended that the inquest report should be regarded as material evidence.