“The friend you didn’t know you had” — Finding support in the Coroners' Courts

Four women outside Poppy's HQ with Coroner's Court Support Service leaflets. Sign says: Let's create a funeral that works for you
Gwen from CCSS (right) with some of the Poppy's team

Five minute read

In 2021, a third of all deaths in England and Wales were referred to a Coroner’s Court, with over 32,000 of these leading to an inquest.

These are deaths which are violent, unexpected or unexplained in some way. A coroner’s investigation averages nearly eight months to complete. Awaiting the result, as well as attending the inquest, can be difficult and traumatic for many families.

The Coroners’ Courts’ Support Service (CCSS) has volunteers in 50 Coroners’ Courts and a national helpline. Gwen Wild, from CCSS, explains what they offer and why it is so important.

What happens when someone is referred to the coroner

Sometimes people contact our helpline within hours of the death. They’ll google ‘coroners’ court’ and find us. They might not know where the person’s been taken or what’s going on.

We take their postcode to find out which coroner's court the inquest referral has gone to.

We signpost them to other services and give out information about the Good Grief Trust. You can’t assume what a person’s needs are and how their needs may change.

Opening the coroner’s investigation

The coroner officially opens the Investigation into the death in court. Then it is closed, and an investigating officer, known as the coroner’s officer, is appointed.

The coroner’s officer contacts the family, next of kin or other interested person to let them know that the process has started.

If a post mortem is required, the coroner issues an interim death certificate afterwards. This means that the funeral can go ahead.

Gathering evidence for the coroner’s investigation

The coroner’s officer tries to interview anyone who has had some involvement with the person who has died. If the person died in hospital, or in custody, the hospital or police force do their own internal investigation and pass this information to the coroner’s officer.

The family receives a copy of all the paperwork, including witness statements, before the inquest. The coroner’s officer may include a CCSS leaflet, so more families get in touch with us at this point.

Helpline callers are often then referred to our telephone support service which can answer specific questions about a particular court.

The inquest takes place where someone dies, not necessarily where they have lived, so often families will have to travel from another area. A volunteer who covers that particular court will be able to answer questions about local transport or places to stay.

What happens on the day of the inquest?

The day of the inquest itself is usually when families most need support from a CCSS volunteer.

In a lot of cases, we meet people for the first time on the day of the inquest. You have to build up rapport very quickly! We tell them that we’re from an independent charity — not part of the court system, police or prison service.

The family needs to know you are there for them, if they need you. If they need to leave the courtroom, the volunteer can go with them. Our volunteers should be the friend that they didn’t know they had.

The coroner asks questions to each witness, then asks legal representatives and the families if they’ve got any questions.

The purpose of an inquest is to uncover the cause of death. It’s not a court of blame. However, coroners do question witnesses robustly if required and write up reports to prevent future deaths.

The court adjourns for consideration before coming back with the finding. It’s an open court — anyone can attend. This includes the press, which can be difficult for families.

Our volunteers can speak to journalists and say, ‘the family doesn’t want to talk to you, please don’t talk to them’. Sometimes the family wants to make a press statement afterwards and we help with that.

An inquest can take anything from an hour to two or three days — longer if there’s a jury. The families will ask us, ‘how can someone make a decision in just an hour?’

We explain it’s the conclusion of a long process of investigation. The inquest is the opportunity for families to see the evidence for themselves.

CCSS has a positive impact on people's lives

Lily is one of the hundreds of people who has benefited from the support of CCSS. She found out about it through the charity Brake, after her mum died in a road traffic collision.

“I was suddenly thrown into a living nightmare. Having an inquest and police investigation was distressing and overwhelming, on top of the shock, trauma, grief and death admin,” she explains.

"It was an enormous relief to speak to someone at CCSS. I had finally found someone who could answer my long list of questions. The volunteer at CCSS gave me information and guidance, so I felt less in the dark about the whole complex process.

“The inquest was still an incredibly difficult experience, but I felt supported and knew that CCSS were there for me.”

Find resources to help when someone dies suddenly

What’s it like volunteering for CCSS?

Some of our volunteers have been through the process themselves; others are retired or semi-retired people who have worked in the law and have seen it from the other side.

They are all compassionate and all spend time in the court, shadowing other volunteers, as part of their training.

Coroners tell us that they can tell the difference when our volunteers are there — the atmosphere calms down.

There’s still anxiety but not that heightened anxiety of ‘oh my god, where do I go? where do I sit?’. That’s all been dealt with. When they go in, they know they’ve got their new friend somewhere in the courtroom.

Volunteering for CCSS is varied. It’s quite harrowing at times, but there’s always a sense of achievement — you know you’ve made a really, really difficult situation a little bit better.

Find out how to get support from CCSS or call their helpline on 0300 111 2141.

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