Cayman Islands: Coroner's Inquests

Last Updated: 9 February 2015
Article by Benjamin Tonner

Introduction

Members of the public are most likely to come into contact with the Coroner's court when a friend or relative has died suddenly and unexpectedly. People not directly related to the deceased may also become involved as witnesses.

Dealing with any bereavement is hard enough but having to cope with the additional burden of an inquiry can be a confusing and distressing experience.

Whilst this guide is intended to remove some of the mystery from the process, it is no substitute for reliable and informed legal advice.

The Coroner

The Coroner is a Magistrate appointed in accordance with the Coroner's Law (1995 Revision). In emergencies, the Governor may appoint any suitable person to act as Coroner.

Coroner's jurisdiction and duty

When the Coroner becomes aware that the dead body of any person is lying within his jurisdiction, and there is reasonable cause to suspect that such person has died either a violent or an unnatural death, or has died a sudden death of which the cause has not been medically determined, or that such person has died in prison, the Coroner shall, as soon as practicable, hold an inquest touching the death of such person.

In the majority of cases the Coroner receives the initial report of a death from the Royal Cayman Islands Police Service ("RCIPS") or the staff of the George Town Hospital. He may also receive notification from the Director of Prisons, the Master of a ship in Cayman Islands territorial waters or an undertaker.

Pre-Inquest matters

Next of Kin

Upon being notified of a death, the Coroner shall cause the Clerk of the Court to open a file. The Clerk of Court will notify the deceased's next of kin.

Autopsy

The Coroner may view the body and order the performance of an autopsy.

Enquiries

Under the Coroner's supervision the RCIPS will make appropriate enquiries concerning the circumstances surrounding the death.

If a lay person, such as a friend or family member, has not been approached directly by the Police or any other investigating agency and feels that they have relevant information to give, they should not hesitate to let the Coroner know.

There is nothing to stop any interested person asking the Coroner for information or documents prior to an inquest. The Coroner will decide what information it is appropriate to share in advance of the proceedings bearing in mind that the disclosure of information prior to an inquest could possibly prejudice the outcome.

Notice of Inquest

The Clerk of the Court shall give notification of the date, hour and place of an inquest to properly interested persons.

Attendance of witnesses

The Coroner shall summon all persons he believes may be able to testify in furtherance of an inquest.

The Inquest

Jury

Where an inquest is to be held the Coroner shall notify the time and place thereof to the Clerk of the Court who shall forthwith empanel a jury. The Coroner shall randomly select seven jurors from the panel.

Matters to be ascertained at the Inquest

The proceedings and evidence at the Inquest shall be directed solely to ascertaining the following matters:

  1. Who the deceased was;
  2. How, when and where the deceased came by his or her death; and
  3. The particulars required by the Births and Deaths Registration Law to be registered concerning the death.

Neither the Coroner nor the jury shall express any opinion on any other matters.

Public hearing

The Inquest shall be held in public but the Coroner may direct that the public be excluded from any part of the proceedings if he considers that it would be in the public interest or the interest of national security so to do.

Recording of Evidence

The Coroner shall record the evidence of all the witnesses appearing or summoned before him. He shall further cause all exhibits to be identified, marked and preserved until the final disposal of the case and of any other proceedings arising from it. Witnesses can be compelled to attend if necessary. The Coroner will decide what evidence is to be called an in what order.

The Coroner is not restricted from recording and taking into account evidence on the ground that it would not be admissible at common or under the Evidence Law. In other words, the strict rules of evidence which apply in criminal cases do not apply to this inquisitorial and non-adversarial process.

The Coroner may allow cross-examination of any witness by any person present in court desiring to cross-examine. Equally, the Coroner shall permit any person present in court to testify who desires so to do and states that his testimony may throw light upon the subject matter of the Inquest.

Legal representation

Any person who, in the Coroner's opinion, is a properly interested person may examine any witness at the Inquest either in person or by an attorney-at-law

Self-incrimination

Any witness at the Inquest shall not be obliged to answer any question tending to incriminate himself. Where it appears to the Coroner that a witness has been asked such a question, the Coroner shall inform the witness that he may refuse to answer.

Any person whose conduct is likely, in the opinion of the Coroner, to be called in question at the Inquest shall, if not summoned to give evidence at the Inquest, be given reasonable notice of the date, hour and place at which the Inquest will be held.

The Attorney General

The Attorney-General (or any attorney-at-law nominated by the Attorney-General) may examine any witness at an inquest in which the Crown or any department in Government is interested.

Should the Attorney-General decide to institute criminal proceedings against any person for causing the death of any person upon whose body a Coroner's inquest is in course of being held, he shall notify the Coroner who shall stay the Inquest pending the outcome of the criminal case and shall cause the depositions taken up to that time and any exhibits produced before him in the case to be made available to the Attorney-General.

The Verdict

It is the Coroner's duty to direct the Jury on the law and sum up the evidence. However, the findings of fact are entirely made by the Jury alone.

The evidential test is the balance of probabilities (i.e. the civil standard of proof) except in the cases of suicide and unlawful killing where the test is beyond reasonable doubt (i.e. the criminal standard). The verdict of the jury shall, subject to the evidence available, state-

  1. The name and description of the deceased;
  2. The physical cause of death; and
  3. How the death was brought about, that is to say, whether the death was occasioned-
    1. by natural causes;
    2. by misadventure; or
    3. by suicide and if so the presumed state of mind of the deceased.

When the evidence is insufficient to enable a conclusion to be reached the verdict shall to that extent be an open one. The verdict of the jury shall be that of the majority.

Prevention of similar fatalities

If the Coroner believes that action should be taken to prevent the recurrence of fatalities similar to that in respect of which the Inquest is being held he may announce at the Inquest that he is reporting the matter in writing to the person or authority who may have power to take such action and he may report the matter accordingly.

Appeals and Judicial Review

There is no automatic right of Appeal against findings and conclusion of an inquest. The proceedings are, however, subject to challenge by way of Judicial Review. This is a very complex area of the law and it is important to seek legal advice in this regard.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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