Who is a Coroner and what do they do?
Coroners and coronial law are predominately concerned with how and why people die, whether a death raises any concerns for public health or safety, and whether the death could have been prevented. At certain times Coroners also look into the causes of disasters and fires which have caused substantial property damage.
In the ACT, the functions of a Coroner are carried out by a number of the Magistrates of the ACT Magistrates through power given in the Coroners Act 1997. The ACT Government has recently announced funding for a Magistrate to be appointed as dedicated full-time Coroner.
Coroners receive a briefing on every death that occurs in the ACT and then determine if they are satisfied with the information provided about the circumstances and cause of death. If the death was natural or did not occur in suspicious or concerning circumstances, then the Coroner approves the release of the death certificate and body to the family.
How do they decide whether an inquest should be held?
An inquest is a further investigation of the Coroner into a death. Section 13 of the Coroners Act sets out circumstances when a coroner must hold an inquest. These circumstances include where a person dies whilst in custody or under the care of the government (such as in Child and Youth Protection or if under mental health laws), violently or unnaturally in unknown circumstances, in suspicious circumstance, or as a direct result of some kind of accident. This section also states that a Coroner must inquire into deaths resulting from operations or procedures the Chief Coroner decides should be further explored or any death in circumstances which the Attorney-General decides should be further explored.
Who participates in a hearing and how is it different from a criminal hearing?
As part of their inquest into a death, a Coroner can decide whether or not a hearing should be held. Coroners hold powers to do things like order post-mortems be conducted on the body of the deceased or further information from police. It may be that once they have been provided this information or result, the Coroner becomes satisfied about the cause and circumstances of death and decided a hearing is not necessary.
If there are still further questions about the causes and circumstances of death, or if the death was one that occurred in custody or care, the Coroner holds a hearing. Coronial hearings are inquisitorial in nature, meaning their purpose is to investigate what occurred, as opposed to a criminal hearing which is adversarial and pits the defence against the prosecution. Because of this, a number of different parties may participate in a Coronial Hearing. The Coroner will usually appoint a ‘Counsel assisting the Coroner.’ This is a lawyer or barrister that will appear at the hearing to assist in the production and presentation of evidence, examination of witnesses, and ensure that relevant facts or matters of law are brought to the Coroner’s attention so that the public interest and interest of justice are served.
Other parties can apply to the Coroner for permission to be represented at the hearing. For this to occur, the party must have ‘sufficient interest’ in the subject matter. One party that almost always has sufficient interest and will be represented is the family of the deceased. If the death occurred in care or custody, the relevant branch of the ACT Government will often have an interest and be represented. Other examples are where the death occurred through employment, the employer may be represented, or after a medical procedure, the hospital or treating doctor may be represented.
What happens at the end of a hearing?
Once the hearing has concluded, the Coroner reviews the evidence before the court and if possible will make a finding about how the death (or disaster or fire) occurred, the identity of the deceased if it is unknown, and the time and location of the death. Findings about how death occurred may be a finding that determines a particular person or entity is responsible, that a combination of circumstances was the result, or that the cause was still unable to be determined.
If during an Inquest the Coroner believes a person has committed a serious offence, they can refer the matter to the Director of Public Prosecutions. If the Director decides to lay criminal charges against a person, the Coronial Inquest will not continue until the charges are determined.
When an Inquest concludes, the coroner must make their findings available to the family of the deceased and to any person or entity against whom they make an adverse finding. The conclusion of an Inquest does not preclude the Chief Coroner from holding a new inquiry either on their own decision or at the request of another person. For a new Inquest to be held there must be new facts or evidence which was not previously available and it must also be desirable to public interest or the interests of justice.
Priyanka Koci, Lawyer