While the deaths of most of our loved ones can be explained by the ravages of illness and old age, in cases where a death is sudden, unexpected or occurs in traumatic circumstances (a violent murder, for example), the coroner will become involved to investigate.
The role of the coroner is both judicial and investigative. If warranted after an inquest into a death, the coroner may make appropriate recommendations to the government and police. The coroner’s chief function is to determine the facts of the date, place, circumstances and medical cause of the person’s death.
The coroner deals with ‘reportable deaths’, defined in the Coroners Act 2009 as:
- violent or unnatural deaths;
- sudden deaths the cause of which is unknown;
- deaths in unusual or suspicious circumstances;
- deaths which are not the ‘reasonably expected outcome of a health-related procedure’;
- deaths of patients resident in psychiatric hospitals, including patients temporarily absent.
In this post, we’ll explain a bit more about the role of the coroner and how a coronial investigation impacts on bereaved family members.
First steps to the involvement of the coroner
In general police, medical and health professionals will report a sudden death to the coroner, and also inform the family of the coronial investigation. A family member or friend may also be asked by the police to formally identify a loved one’s body. If a visual identification is not possible, it may be necessary for other means of identification to be used, such as dental records or fingerprints.
Once the coroner is involved in investigating the death, it’s important for the family of the deceased to hold off organising a funeral until the body is able to be released to their nominated funeral director.
The coroner will generally order a post-mortem examination – or autopsy – of the deceased. This examination will be conducted by a forensic pathologist to determine the presence, nature and extent of any disease or damage, and help inform the coroner of the cause or causes of death.
Coroner’s investigations and inquests
The coroner’s initial investigation may comprise a combination of the post-mortem and pathology tests, a review of the deceased’s medical history and the circumstances of the death, specialist reports and witness statements. Coronial investigations can take up to a year or longer.
If the investigation uncovers evidence of a serious criminal offence by someone in relation to the death, it is suspended until that offence can be prosecuted in a court as the coroner has no jurisdiction to handle criminal matters.
At the conclusion of the investigation, the coroner will review the evidence to work out whether an inquest – in essence, a court hearing – is required. An inquest will usually be recommended if the cause or manner of death remains unclear after the investigation. The coroner will take into account the wishes of the deceased’s family in making this decision. In the case of missing persons who the police suspect to be dead, a coronial inquest must be held.
At an inquest the coroner receives evidence to determine the identity of the deceased and the date, place, manner and cause of their death. Witnesses may be called to give evidence regarding their knowledge of the circumstances of the death. Family members of the deceased are informed about timing and location of the inquest. While most inquests are public hearings, some are closed depending on the nature of the case.
The coroner makes a ‘finding’ at the conclusion of the inquest which is provided to the family and other people.
Unsure about dealing with the coroner? Seek legal advice
The coroner’s role is to provide answers in the case of reportable deaths detailed above, thereby bringing certainty and a degree of solace to surviving family members. To this end the coroner keeps family members informed of the steps in the coronial process and allows them the opportunity to make submissions at the inquest. Family members can also request that an inquest into their loved one’s death be held and also object to a post-mortem being held, requests the coroner may consider. In certain circumstances, it is advisable to be legally represented during a coronial investigation or at a coronial inquest. If you’re unsure about whether you need to be legally represented contact our Sydney Personal injury lawyers at BPC Lawyers today for a consultation.