Coroner’s Court – My Experiences of Giving Evidence

Liz Thomas

We are very lucky to have a well developed and longstanding coronial service – I’ve just been listening to the FICM podcast with Derek Winter and have found out it can be dated back to at least 1194. Something not covered in the excellent podcast is how it feels to be in the stand – giving evidence, so here is a blog on my experiences.

When the email arrives with the “witness warning letter” you know you are going to court – just those words can induce stress.

Also the emotions are usually high – families have lost a loved one, they have grief and questions. Sometimes the circumstances of the death are upsetting as well.

Taking the stand, swearing the oath, giving evidence – I found that my registrar training hadn’t really prepared me for giving evidence.

When I have been called to give evidence there has always been a reason – there will be a question that needs you to answer it. I am lucky that I have written quite a lot of statements for the coroner but haven’t had to attend in person that many times. Sometimes the aspects I expect to be asked about aren’t the aspects that I have been asked about in the stand.

Giving evidence under oath is a formal event however you are not on trial – no matter how it feels – you cannot be prosecuted there; all the coroner wants to find out is the facts. It is a unique experience as the deceased’s family can ask you questions – coroner will keep it to the point of the inquest though. It is a ‘big day’ and long awaited for the family –they want answers about the death of their loved one and closure on the death. Also it can be a long time from death to inquest, so it is possible the events will have faded in your memory, however the medical notes can be helpful – so I find it best if I’ve had  a good read of the notes from the whole hospital stay before I go to court.  I will also read the other witnesses’ statements as well if possible so I can give the best evidence I can and answer all questions posed to me.

I don’t know is an acceptable answer – it Is important that you do not hypothesize in the stand. And you can refer to the medical notes whilst giving evidence and this can be  helpful as quite often will be covering the whole critical care/hospital stay rather than direct events you have been involved in.

Recently I have given evidence by video link rather than having to attend court in person. It was very helpful to not have to attend, although as with all video conferences, slightly disconnected not being in the room. Also, I found out afterwards that my face was on the big screen for the whole proceeding so everyone in court could watch me throughout. Whilst giving evidence on video link I could only see the coroner himself – which is different as when I  court you can see the family too. I think having done it once, I would arrange a debrief with a colleague after giving the video evidence, as it was a little lonely and I had reflections on the whole case. However, with covid and distancing I would certainly give evidence by video again if I have the opportunity.

If your trust offers a solicitor then it is helpful to meet them/chat on the phone before hand. I would recommend going to court  to see an inquest being heard before you have to give evidence, to help understand the process and to prepare. Also, if you are offered training on attending coroner’s court then I would take it as being prepared helps minimizing the stress. Although every coroner/deputy coroner I have met have made the hearing and giving evidence easy and been excellent at their job and most importantly, excellent with the deceased family.

Liz is a consultant in intensive care medicine and anaesthesia , and the chair of the Women in Intensive Care Medicine Sub-Committee

Don’t forget to list to our podcasts on the Coroner :

The Coroner – Part 1 – With Derek Winter. Derek is HM Senior Coroner for the City of Sunderland and was appointed as one of the two Deputy Chief Coroners of England and Wales in 2019

The Coroner – Part 2 – With Bev Frankland. Bev is the Risk & Inquest Manager for South Tyneside and Sunderland NHS Foundation Trust.