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An inquest is an independent investigation into an unnatural death, which is carried out by a Coroner. The aim is to establish who the deceased was, where and when they died, and the reason why they died. In most inquests it will only be the reason why a person died that needs to be uncovered.

An inquest will establish the cause of death, for example that it was an accident or an unlawful killing, but it cannot decide blame. If there is a question of blame, this will be for the criminal or civil courts to decide and will require separate legal action.

By contrast, a public inquiry is conducted by a judge appointed by the UK government. The goals of a public inquiry are set by the government, usually taking into account the questions and concerns of interested parties, including individual members of the public and organisations. Usually held when there is public concern that something has happened requiring an open, fair and thorough investigation by a body independent from the problem. Public inquiries are not necessarily held in public, nor will the report of the inquiry necessarily be available for public view.

Public inquiries may be in relation to events that suggest a breakdown in the rule of law or where there has been a shocking crime, or those which have caused deaths such as the Victoria Climbie Inquiry or the Grenfell Tower Fire Inquiry. A public inquiry will usually have a much broader remit than an inquest and will typically involve looking at a much wider range of evidence. It is therefore common for proceedings to take much longer, often stretching over several years. One other key way in which public inquiries differ from inquests is that they do have the power to assign blame.

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