The circumstances in which a coroner is obliged to call a jury to hear evidence at an inquest are laid down in the Coroners and Justice Act 2009 (CJA 2009).
The circumstances where a jury is mandatory include:
- where the deceased died while in custody or state detention, and the death was either violent or unnatural, or the cause of death is unknown;
- where the death resulted from an act or omission of a police officer;
- where the death was caused by a “notifiable accident, poisoning or disease”, such as an accident in the workplace.
In addition to the mandatory categories above, under the CJA 2009 a coroner also has a broad discretion to call a jury if he or she “thinks that there is sufficient reason for doing so”.
When deciding whether to exercise his/her discretion, the coroner may well take into account the views of the family of the deceased, wider policy considerations and whether the facts of the instant inquest bear any resemblance to the types of situation covered by the mandatory jury provisions above.
If an inquest is of particular public interest then that may also support a jury being called. Juries, being made up of lay people, may be perceived as more willing to return conclusions about the cause of the death that are critical of the authorities. Also, a jury presence ensures that the inquest is inherently more democratic and brings an additional layer of impartiality.
A jury may be considered less desirable if the case is highly technical or involves a significant volume of complicated documentation, which may overwhelm a panel of jurors. In such cases it may be felt the evidence is better addressed by a coroner with experience of the complexities.