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  • Jessie Foreman

What is the difference between an inquest and an inquiry?

Updated: Nov 15, 2023

The terms ‘inquest’ and ‘inquiry’ are often used interchangeably. They are both fact-finding investigations, launched in response to notable events. However these two similar sounding terms mark two very different types of investigations. This article will explore the differences between these two distinct legal proceedings.


An inquest is launched if someone dies from unnatural causes. The very limited questions the investigation aims to answer are:

  • Who the deceased was;

  • When and where they died;

  • The medical cause of their death;

  • How they came by their death.

Inquests are held by Coroners In rare circumstances where an inquest cannot hear or gather all of the evidence needed, the Home Secretary may consent to holding a public inquiry.

Famous examples of an inquest include the deaths of Princess Diana and Dodi Al Fayed and the murder of Stephen Lawrence.


An inquiry is simply the act of seeking more information about something. Public inquiries are large-scale investigations set up to determine the existence of ‘public concern’ in relation to a specific event. This includes wars, pandemics and even the mismanagement of pension funds.

They are assembled by a government minister, but they are carried out independently. They select a panel and chairperson to lead the proceedings and call witnesses to testify before them. At the close, the panel will compile a report, which attempts to establish:

  • What happened;

  • Why it happened;

  • Who is to blame;

  • Preventative measures for the future.

The final point is deemed to be the main purpose of public inquiries. Famous examples of public inquiries include the Grenfell Tower Inquiry and The Levenson Inquiry.

The main distinctions between an inquest and inquiry are:

  1. Scope – An inquest focuses specifically on determining the cause of an unnatural death, while an inquiry has broader scope to investigate a range of issues including social, political and environmental, known as its ‘Terms of Reference’;

  2. Authority – Inquests are conducted by a Coroner who simply writes their conclusion as to the cause of death, whereas an inquiry is typically established by the government and led by an appointed panel;

  3. Powers – The Inquiries Act 2005 gives public inquiries the legal powers to compel witnesses to give evidence, provide legal safeguards and can limit the government’s control over said inquiry. Inquests have far fewer powers as they are primarily concerned with establishing the facts surrounding the cause of death, but on some occasions may hold pre-inquest hearings and operate under the jurisdiction of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009.

Legal disclaimer: Articles are intended as an introduction to the topic and do not constitute legal advice. The information contained herein is accurate at the date of publication but please note that the law is ever changing and evolving. If you require advice in relation to any matter raised in this article please contact a member of the team.


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