An inquiry by a CORONER or medical examiner, sometimes with the aid of a jury, into the cause of a violent death or a death occurring under suspicious circumstances. Generally an inquest may result in a finding of natural death, accidental death, suicide, or murder. Criminal prosecution may follow when culpable conduct has contributed to the death.
The body of jurors called to inquire into the circumstances of a death that occurred suddenly, by violence, or while imprisoned. Any body of jurors called to inquire into certain matters. (A GRAND JURY is sometimes called a grand inquest, for example.)
The determination or findings of a body of persons called to make a legal inquiry or the report issued after their investigation.
The foundation of the modern jury system can be traced back to the Carolingian empire of medieval Europe during the eighth to the tenth centuries. The monarchs used a procedure called inquest, or inquisition, to help them consolidate their authority in the realm. They called together the people of the countryside and required them to recite what they considered to be the immemorial rights of the king. Once these rights were ascertained, they were adopted by the government and considered established. There was no accusation, verdict, or judgment in these proceedings, but the inquest fixed the right of the government to obtain information from its citizens.
The Norman invaders were not long on English soil when they used the inquest to compile the Domesday Book, a census compiled between 1085 and 1086 to record the ownership of land throughout the kingdom.
For this inquiry, citizens were called and required to give testimony under oath about their land and PERSONAL PROPERTY.
The inquest was also used in local courts in England during the Middle Ages. Since a person could not be tried for a crime until accused, a panel of four men from each vill and twelve from each hundred appeared before the court and charged certain individuals with crimes. The panel members appeared voluntarily, however, and were not summoned by a public officer as is done for an inquest today. Then in 1166 a law called the Assize of Clarendon made the inquest procedure mandatory. The panel of men was required to appear before local sheriffs and make regular accusations on their oaths. These cases then were tried in the royal courts because of the king's special interest in keeping the peace. This procedure was the origin of the modern grand jury.
A further step in consolidating the king's powers came with creation of the office of the coroner, so named for its service to the crown. In the Middle Ages the coroner was a powerful local official who kept records of appeals from lower courts, accusations, hangings, and public financial matters. He held inquests to investigate royal rights concerning fish, shipwrecks, treasure trove, and unexplained deaths. The purpose of such inquests was always to determine the extent of the king's financial interests. Anytime there was a death, the crown took whatever object had caused the death and all of the personal property of anyone who committed suicide or was convicted of a felony. From this early function of fiscal administration, the coroner today has become primarily responsible for managing dead bodies, but the inquest is still the procedure the coroner uses for investigation.