An inquest is a formal inquiry which is held in a court to determine how and why something happened, and if additional action is needed. The classic example of an inquest is a coroner's inquest, an examination held before a court to determine cause of death. Typically an inquest is held before a judge and jury; in some regions, a trained and appointed panel of people oversees an inquest, and these people may collectively be known as an inquest panel. In regions of the world which use the traditional English coroner system, inquests are quite common.
The goal of an inquest is not a determination of guilt, it is a determination of facts. In the example of an inquest held to determine someone's cause of death, various witnesses and evidence would be presented to the court. The members of the inquest would determine whether or not the death was wrongful, and they might make a recommendation for prosecution. In some legal systems, an inquest must be held before someone can be accused of a murder, whether or not his or her participation is obvious. This is a legacy of the Norman system of inquest, which has been used since the 11th century.
In addition to being used to determine cause of death, an inquest can also be held to investigate matters like corruption, accidents, and disasters. These legal investigations can also be used to gather useful information, as in the instance of an inquest to figure out the legal boundaries of neighboring properties. It is simply a format for a method of inquiry which is designed to be as clear and factual as possible, without generating any clear verdict as to who is responsible for the events being investigated by an inquest.
Typically, an inquest is open to the public, allowing concerned or interested people to sit in on the proceedings. At the end of an inquest, the jury returns a verdict, and it usually publishes its opinion in court records. Once the jury has made its opinion known, a judge can make a decision on whether or not something else needs to happen. For example, if a jury returns a verdict of wrongful death, the judge can issue a warrant for the arrest of a suspect and begin an investigation into his or her involvement in the case.
In regions of the world with legal systems modeled on that used in Great Britain, an inquest takes places in a coroner's court, a specially convened court named for the official who oversees it. Under the coroner system, the coroner has the legal responsibility to investigate a death, and to delegate people to perform investigatory tasks; contrary to popular belief, coroners rarely physical examine bodies, as they prefer to allow trained professional medical examiners to perform this task.