It is generally accepted that death is the end of all men. However, when the death of a person is hastened by the actions of another or brought about by the acts or omissions of a person, it makes the demise of a loved one even more difficult to accept. Sometimes, death occurs in circumstances that are inexplicable, suspicious or in ways that are difficult to understand. The media has reported a number of deaths that raised concerns as to whether there was foul play or if death occurred independent of the actions of others.

Recently, a 22 year old student died in her boyfriend’s apartment while eating the food she was served by her boyfriend. Her remains were deposited in a morgue and the police said it had commenced investigations into the cause of death. Another sad incident occurred in Lagos State; a maid was reported by her employers to have committed suicide. The pictures of the scene of death and the deceased however seemed incompatible with suicide. Her family was of the opinion that her employers beat her to death and staged her suicide. Her employers, suspected to have had a hand in her death were taken into police custody for further investigation. A prominent Nigerian also recently died and his children through their lawyer wrote to the Chief Justice of Lagos State requesting a coroner’s inquest into the circumstances of their father’s death. Their late father’s wife insisted that a coroner’s inquest was unnecessary.

What is a Coroner’s Inquest?

A coroner’s inquest is often mistaken for an autopsy or post-mortem examination simpliciter, but it goes beyond that. A coroner’s inquest is an inquiry conducted by a coroner in order to ascertain the identity of a deceased person, (where the identity of the deceased is unknown) the time, manner and place of death. It is an inquiry conducted to determine the cause of death, in order to ascertain if the death is a murder, suicide or death resulting from natural causes.

In order to find answers as to the circumstances and cause of death, a coroner may order a post mortem examination to be carried out by a medical examiner. Where a deceased person has already been buried, the coroner may order the exhumation of the deceased in order for a post-mortem examination to be carried out.  In addition to a post-mortem examination, the coroner holds an inquiry where witnesses may be required to testify or ordered to produce documents for the coroner to making findings as to the cause and manner of death.

A person may request that an inquest be conducted where death results in a violent, unnatural or suspicious situation. An inquest may also be conducted where a person dies following medical treatment or medical intervention or where a person dies in police custody. In all circumstances where it appears desirable that an inquest be conducted, an inquest may be requested. An inquest may sometimes be conducted for the purpose of safeguarding public health and safety. For example, an inquest was conducted into the collapse of a popular church in Lagos state which led to the death of about 116 persons. At the conclusion of the inquest, the coroner found that the church was criminally negligent and recommended that the church be prosecuted.

Every person who discovers a body or who becomes aware of a death is expected to report to the police, the local government authority or a coroner where he or she believes that the circumstances of death warrant an inquest. A person may also write to the Chief Coroner of the state requesting an inquest. A coroner is a magistrate appointed for the purpose of conducting inquiries into the cause of death. At the conclusion of the inquest, if the coroner is of the opinion that charges may be preferred against a person in connection with the death, he may make an order for the arrest of the suspect, for further investigation.

A family may request an autopsy where they desire to ascertain the cause of death, without seeking a coroner’s inquest. Sometimes, an autopsy may be preferred over an inquest because of the shorter time within which an autopsy may be concluded and a report issued. Whereas, an inquest could take a longer period of time, particularly because it involves a judicial inquiry; this may delay the burial of the deceased. Where a coroner’s inquest is requested and one is conducted, it means the state is involved in the process. The implication of this, is that the state then determines what will be done, depending on the findings and recommendations of the coroner. A coroner’s inquest helps secure justice for the dead and brings some measure of comfort to the living by providing answers that may otherwise not be gotten.