Most medical professionals will be involved in an Inquest at some point in their careers, whether this involves attending purely to give witness evidence, or as an Interested Person (“IP”) in their own right.
Even where the surgeon’s only role is to give evidence, it can still be a daunting experience. Especially as an unexpected patient death is usually distressing for the surgeon as well as for the family of the deceased. But where the surgeon was directly involved in the circumstances of the death, the Coroner’s findings can have consequences. The family of the deceased may use the findings to help progress a compensation claim against the surgeon, the Coroner might refer the surgeon to the GMC to investigate their fitness to practise, or (rarely) the police might need to investigate whether the death was the result of a crime.
An Inquest is very much a fact-finding inquiry, as opposed to a fault-finding trial. The Coroner has no power to levy fines or order compensation. But there are still situations where a surgeon needs their own individual legal representation. A surgeon who is given IP status by the Coroner has the right to actively participate in the Inquest proceedings, including all the preliminary hearings dealing with questions of evidence and procedure. It is unlikely that a surgeon could effectively represent themselves as an IP, and it is not always appropriate for the surgeon to rely on the lawyers for the hospital or Trust, so formal legal representation for the surgeon can be vital.
There are other practical difficulties for surgeons, because the Coroner may require a written report/statement from the surgeon before the Coroner has decided who will have IP status. That statement will become an important part of the evidence, so if there is any prospect that the surgeon might become an IP they should seek assistance from their indemnifiers and medico-legal advisers straight away.
With this in mind, surgeons need to check that their indemnity arrangements include cover for the cost of legal advice and representation if they are made an IP. Surgeons also need to understand any notification requirements of their indemnity arrangements and notify promptly if a patient death could lead to the surgeon being an IP at the Inquest, or to a GMC referral, a clinical negligence claim or even a police investigation. Notifying at the right time is in your interests because it avoids potential problems with cover, but also gets you access to the right medico-legal (and full legal) advice and assistance when you need it.
The details of Inquest procedure is unfamiliar to most surgeons, so Incision has produced a detailed guide to give Incision members an overview of the Inquest process, to demystify it and provide some key guidance. Incision members have the benefit of insurance policies that pay for legal representation in Inquests where the surgeon is an IP, as well as GMC investigations and police investigations, and of course cover for compensation claims. Incision members also have access to a specialist medico-legal helpline team staffed by dual qualified doctors and lawyers who are on hand to assist and support members if they are unlucky enough to be involved in an Inquest.