Giving evidence at an inquest can be a daunting thought, with many nervous about saying the wrong thing which may upset the family of the deceased. One question we are frequently asked is whether it’s appropriate to offer condolences for the loss of a loved one, or apologies when something has gone wrong. In this article, Victoria Mortimer discusses the different options and some practical tips on how to handle these situations.
Offering your condolences
When a coroner opens an investigation into somebody’s death, family members of the deceased will often be actively involved in the coroner’s investigation from providing their own witness evidence to asking questions of other witnesses at the inquest hearing. Family members are therefore very much at the centre of a coroner’s inquest, and this will understandably be a difficult and stressful time for many families. Many witnesses wish to offer condolences or express sympathy for the loss of a loved one but wonder whether this is appropriate and acceptable. Existing relationships or communication with the family will vary however, if you feel that you would like to offer condolences (and this is personal choice), this is entirely acceptable and is often welcomed by families and others present in court. Note that some families will not react, but it is very rare that these sentiments are expressly disregarded.
Practically, sometimes the only opportunity for witnesses is whilst you are giving your evidence, and witnesses who are otherwise very keen to acknowledge the loss to the family will often become focused on the factual evidence they are giving and forget what it is they wanted to say. We usually recommend that, to avoid these circumstances, you offer any condolences or apologies right at the start of your evidence, when giving your name.
Offering an apology to the family will be appropriate where issues or shortcomings in the deceased’s care are identified either before or at an inquest hearing. Saying sorry is not an admission of legal liability and it is often appreciated by the family if it is offered as soon as it becomes apparent that something has gone wrong. Saying sorry at an inquest is also an opportunity to learn from what has happened and to prevent it from happening again. As with offering condolences, organisations should contact the family before the inquest hearing. If there is to be separate internal investigation into the person’s death at a hospital trust, the family should be notified and offered a meeting with the investigators, which is an opportunity for the trust to apologise for when something has gone wrong. All health and social care providers that are regulated by the CQC are also subject to the statutory duty of candour. This is a duty to act in an open and transparent way with those that they care for and where there has been a ‘notifiable safety incident’. Healthcare professionals are also subject to their own professional duty of candour which similarly requires you to be open and honest with the people you care for and when something has gone wrong with their treatment, or the care causes, or has the potential to cause, harm or distress. Discharging both the statutory and professional duty of candour involves apologising to the family where the patient has died.
NHS Resolution has produced guidance on saying sorry when something goes wrong, which can be accessed here (PDF, 791.07 KB).
How to offer your condolences or offering your apologies will therefore vary between inquests and will depend on whether you are a witness or organisation. If you have any questions, please get in touch with our dedicated inquests team.
For further information, please contact:
Victoria Mortimer, Hill Dickinson