An inquest is, basically, a judicial inquiry in order to ascertain the facts of an incident. In recent years, inquests – at least in South Africa – have had an unfortunate attachment to our inglorious past, because they have concerned incidents like the suspicious deaths of political activists.

Ahmed Timol, an anti-apartheid activist, is an example in point. Security Branch police had formerly testified that the 29-year-old had jumped to his death from the 10th floor of the building known as John Vorster Square – now Johannesburg Police Station. That was in 1971. At the reopened inquest in 2017, 40 years after his death and only as a result of continued pressure from his family, the Pretoria High Court found that Mr Timol had indeed been murdered.1

The function and purpose of the Inquest Act 1959 is to provide for the holding of these kinds of inquiries in cases of deaths (or alleged deaths) which have occurred other than from natural causes. These procedures happen the world over – in the United Kingdom, for example, as many as 38.626 inquests were opened in 2016 alone.2

A. Duty to report

  1. Any person who has reason to believe that another person has died due to other than natural causes must report it as soon as possible to a policeman. If he fails to do so, unless he has reason to believe that someone else has or will reported the death, be guilty of an offence.3

B. Autopsies

If the body of a person who has allegedly died from unnatural causes is available, it must be examined by the district surgeon or any other medical practitioner. If he decides that it is necessary to determine with greater certainty the cause of death, he can examine (or cause an examination of) any internal organs, or parts or contents of the body. This is called an autopsy.

  1. No person other than a policeman or another medical practitioner may be present at the autopsy without the consent of the medical practitioner or a magistrate. It is a crime to contravene this provision.4

  2. It is, furthermore, a criminal offence to hinder or obstruct the carrying out of this examination.5

C. Inquest hearing

  1. Ordinarily, inquests are to be held in public – this just means that the public can freely attend the proceedings. However, in certain circumstances, the appointed judicial officer can determine that the inquest be held behind closed doors (in camera) or that the presence of any particular person is not desirable. If he so directs, it is a criminal offence to contravene the direction.6

  2. If the judicial officer determines that the safety of any witness may be endangered if he testifies at the inquest, he may order that the identity of the person be kept secret; or that it not be revealed for a certain period of time, or revealed only on certain conditions. It is an offence if you fail to comply with such a direction.7

  3. It is a crime to give false evidence (either orally or in a written statement) at an inquest.8

  4. Any person who insults an officer of the inquest, or interrupts the proceedings, or misbehaves in the place where the inquest is being held is liable to be summarily sentenced (as if he had committed a crime).9

  5. Any person who prejudices, influences or anticipates the findings of an inquest commits a criminal offence.10

  1. – ‘Timol Inquest: He was murdered but culprits are dead, court rules’. 

  2. – ‘Coroner’s Statistics 2016’. 

  3. Section 2. 

  4. Section 3(5) read with section 3(6). 

  5. Section 3(6). 

  6. Section 10(2) read with section 10(4). 

  7. Section 10(3) read with section 10(4). 

  8. Section 13(3). 

  9. Section 20(1). 

  10. Section 20(4).