Looking for justice : the family and the inquest
This thesis critically examines the claim that ‘family’ is at the heart of the contemporary inquest system, analysing the impact of this putative change on the construction of kinship, death and the legal. Adopting an interdisciplinary approach, it engages with socio-legal and cultural analyses of death; family and kinship scholarship; and critical legal scholarship on death and the state. In doing so it reveals the richness of the inquest as an area of law which has hitherto attracted relatively little attention but which merits extended exploration. Drawing on historical and jurisprudential materials in the first section, it provides an analysis of the changing historical form of the inquest, and argues that legislative and judicial reconfiguration of the inquest process since 2003 has fundamentally changed the nature of the system, most importantly in relation to the engagement of family prior to a final hearing. It argues that this engagement of the family affects the jurisdiction and form of an individual inquest, and developing this analysis, it explores a series of interviews undertaken with Coroners and officers in England. This empirical work deepens the earlier analysis, drawing insights from reflections on a set of vignettes which trouble the edges of ideas of family; emphasising the ways in which images of family and kinship are conceptualised and materialised through the unfolding of an individual inquest.\ud The central argument is that ‘family’ is a negotiated and constitutive feature of the inquest system; charged with overseeing dignity in a bureaucratic process, making substantive and transparent that which may be otherwise impenetrable and formal, and simultaneously determining the edges of the private and intimate. The thesis contends that an emphasis on meaningful connections to the deceased leads to a fluid construction of kinship, and a reimagination of the politics of both death and family. It argues that the inquest system, without narratives of kinship and connection, risks existing in a solely technocratic form in which ‘disinterested decision-makers using objective, rationalist and universalised forms of knowledge justify decisions that are communicated in an expert language’ (Morgan 2006, 246), and the family bring a ‘tacit expertise that underpins shared experiences, values, symbols, identities and understandings, [providing] the tenor or texture of debate [that] transmits and generates a community because of its capacity to defy routinisation and the explicit codes of expert knowledge’ (Morgan 2006, 259). Working through the inquest process and unpicking these contrasting forms of expertise, this thesis reveals the way in which an individual inquest is constructed through an endeavour to combine contrasting tensions; to blend a contingent, contextual, participative and meaningful process with the ceremony of a mini state funeral (Davis et al 2002), the collection of statistical information, and the setting of standards to prevent future deaths.
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