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How PR agencies can support law firms at inquests

Attending an inquest is often distressing and traumatic – and these emotions can be heightened further due to interest from the media. Former senior journalist Jemma Page discusses the value of PR support in coroners' court.

What is an inquest?

An inquest is a formal investigation conducted by a coroner that determines how someone died.

They are only held in certain circumstances. The law states that a coroner must open an inquest if there is reasonable cause to suspect the death was due to anything other than natural causes.

The purpose of an inquest is to establish four things (the coroner cannot, in law, deal with any other matters):

  • Who the deceased was
  • When and where they died
  • The medical cause of their death
  • How they came about their death (the main focus of the inquest)

An inquest is a fact-finding process and does not deal with issues of blame or responsibility for the death, or with issues of criminal or civil liability. As such, a coroner does not give out sentences or penalties.

At most inquests, there is no jury and the coroner will decide the conclusion alone. However, if someone died in custody of an unnatural cause or if their death was linked to their own or someone else’s actions while at work, for example, a jury is needed. It will be the jury that determines the inquest’s conclusion.

Why PR support at an inquest is beneficial

Members of the press – along with the public – have the right to attend coroners’ court. As such, a solicitor, PR agency or the deceased’s family cannot prevent accounts of the inquest being published or broadcast.

However, there are ways to handle media attention to ensure it doesn’t make the process more stressful.

If a death was high profile, it’s possible that dozens of journalists will be sitting in the hearing. Camera crews also often wait outside the court, which can attract further attention from the public if the court is in a central location.

Being a barrier to the press

Being approached by journalists, as well as walking out of court and seeing hundreds of people staring at you, can be very distressing for families who have just found out how their loved one died.

A PR agency can manage media interest on the family’s behalf, issuing comments to satisfy journalists and keep them away from approaching the family.

We can also speak to court staff and arrange for the family to leave the inquest without being disturbed.

Getting stories out there

An inquest sometimes takes place because inadequate care was provided in the run-up to someone’s death. This is something a deceased person’s family can feel strongly about and it may be important for them to get their loved one’s story out.

However, talking to the media when emotions are running high can be difficult. A PR agency can conduct an interview with the family sensitively and independently before writing a press release or statements.

This would be fully approved by the family before being issued – enabling them to choose the messaging they would like to get across to the public.

Understanding the difference between coroners’ court and criminal court

Coroners’ court is less formal. Lawyers don’t make opening or closing speeches and coroners don’t wear wigs and gowns. Questioning is also straightforward and factual – there is no cross-questioning or attempts to ‘trip up’ a witness.

There are some legal customs, however, such as standing when the coroner arrives and when they leave. People who are present also can’t record, take photos or film in the court room.

Different terminology is also used. For example, the coroner will make ‘findings of fact’ and deliver a ‘conclusion’, as opposed to a ‘verdict’.

As we’ve established, inquests require specialist knowledge. Therefore, when choosing a PR agency, it’s worth asking if they understand how coroners’ court works.

At Cartwright, we have years of experience in supporting inquests. We are comfortable in a courtroom and fully understand the format and differences in terminology.

Our team are also given shorthand training, which is highly beneficial for turning quotes around quickly as you cannot record in court.

How Cartwright can help

We have worked on inquests for years and have supported law firms with some of the most high-profile cases in recent years.

To start with, we put together a media strategy to ensure everything runs smoothly. We also work with solicitors to ensure law firms are name-checked in any press coverage – positioning them as experts in the legal sector and getting their name out there.

Having a PR agency on board can also be used as added value. It’s something a law firm can offer as an extra service to clients after they have been instructed to support them during an inquest, giving their clients one less thing to worry about during a distressing time.

For more information on how our team of experts can support your law firm at an inquest, please get in touch.

By Jemma Page

Jemma spent more than three years as an NCTJ-qualified journalist before moving into the world of PR. Jemma’s journalistic approach to PR means she fully understands what makes a newsroom tick, allowing her to secure strong regional and national coverage for clients.

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