‘May I ask, have you read the regulatory professional competences for practising in the coroner’s court?’ the coroner interrupted – a growing sense of anger apparent in his voice as he rubbed his eyes in frustration.


Adam Hodson

The young advocate felt a gnawing at the pit of their stomach as their client turned to look at them, wondering what was going on. The advocate had a terrible feeling that something bad was about to happen. They were well-versed in their professional standards and obligations, but they had not heard of any specifically called ‘practising in the coroner’s court’ before. What could they do? They could not lie for fear of misleading the court. But they could not confirm they had never heard of the document for fear of exposing their ignorance in front of their client and the judge.

Caught between honesty and the fear of appearing ignorant, they felt paralysed. They swallowed nervously.

Leaning forward in his chair, the coroner locked eyes with the advocate. ‘If you were aware of your professional competences, then you would realise that what you are doing today is prohibited. Your conduct today demonstrates to me that you clearly have a fundamental misunderstanding as to how an inquest operates. I am so concerned at your lack of awareness of even the basics of coronial law that I am considering making a referral to your professional regulator.’

And with that, the coroner’s voice began to fade into the distance. The advocate’s career started to crumble before their eyes.

While the above scenario is fictional, it serves as a dramatic example of what can – and will – happen to practitioners who think that they can dabble in the world of inquests and coronial law without an understanding of their professional obligations. This article therefore serves as a whistle-stop guide to the professional duties arising in coroners’ courts.

For the uninitiated, unlike most court proceedings in England and Wales, inquests do not decide blame or guilt because they are limited to finding out the facts of a person’s death. They are fact-finding hearings which are inquisitorial by nature, with the coroner asking questions of witness to determine the answers to four questions under section 5(1) of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009 – who died, and where, when and how did they die.

Understanding this crucial difference is paramount, as the permissible conduct in an inquest diverges significantly from civil and criminal courts.

To aid practitioners, the Bar Standards Board and the Solicitors Regulation Authority have developed competences and resources in collaboration with various stakeholders, including legal professionals, coroners, bereaved individuals and organisations which assist those at inquests (such as INQUEST or the Coroners’ Courts Support Service).

Pursuit of facts

In terms of procedure, practitioners must keep abreast of inquest jurisdiction and procedure, and assist the coroner in pursuit of all relevant facts while mindful of client duties. This involves understanding the intricacies of coronial law, such as rules governing the admissibility of evidence and the scope of questioning witnesses, and they must assist the coroner in the pursuit of all facts relevant to the inquest process, regardless of who they represent, while being mindful of their duty to their client

Appearing at an inquest means dealing with the vulnerable. Practitioners must recognise the central role of the bereaved in an inquest and have knowledge and understanding of that vulnerability (particularly the advocate’s toolkit). They must also have knowledge and understanding of the potential vulnerability of interested persons and witnesses during an inquest, and adapt their advocacy accordingly.

When communicating and engaging at inquest, an advocate must do so clearly and concisely, using plain language, especially with vulnerable persons, and ensuring advocacy remains appropriate and respectful. Effective communication is key in coroners’ courts, where complex legal concepts must be conveyed in a manner that is accessible to all parties involved. Advocacy must never be hostile or aggressive, and any questions posed must be restricted only to those that are relevant to the inquest

Finally, an advocate must have an awareness of key organisations involved in inquests, and understand how relevant organisations can support stakeholders involved in coroner’s court proceedings, collaborating with them as needed. This includes familiarising oneself with support services available to bereaved families and witnesses, such as counselling services and legal aid organisations, and working with those relevant organisations and agencies as appropriate, where it will benefit family members, witnesses and other interested persons

Practitioners who are aware of and abide by the above competences will have no issue and will ensure that the coroner is assisted in carrying out their inquisitorial function while safeguarding their clients’ interests.  

However, a failure to comply with any of the above would not only be professionally embarrassing, but is now a regulatory matter and can result in a coroner (or any other person) making a complaint to the SRA and/or BSB. The consequences of being found to have breached one’s professional competences can be catastrophic, as our fictional young advocate above learned.

I hope this article serves as a warning to practitioners to ensure they either maintain their professional competences, or alternatively decide to ‘stay in your lane’ and do not dabble in areas of law they are not proficient in (unless you want to appear before a disciplinary tribunal).


Adam Hodson is an associate solicitor with Lanyon Bowdler LLP, and is an assistant coroner for Birmingham and Solihull