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Wilson Speech: Funeral Directors Institute

Margaret Wilson Speech: New Zealand Funeral Directors Institute

Thank you for the invitation to speak to you this morning about the proposed changes to the Coroners Act, some of which I know will have a significant impact on your work.

Tënä kotou katoa

Thank you for the invitation to speak to you this morning about the proposed changes to the Coroners Act, some of which I know will have a significant impact on your work.

To briefly recap, the current review followed the Law Commission's report on coroners completed in 2000. In all the Law Commission made 134 recommendations and as I am sure you can appreciate it has taken some time to work through them all.

Consultation has been an important part of this exercise and comments from funeral directors like yourselves and many other groups have been invaluable in helping to shape the policy.

A key focus for the review has been the need to enhance public confidence in the integrity and independence of the coronial system. I believe the changes will improve the quality, consistency and timeliness of coroners' investigations and decision-making. The new system will also take better account of the diverse cultural and spiritual needs of families while maintaining the need to understand the causes and circumstances of death in a timely way.

The key proposals are: Establishing the role of Chief Coroner; Moving to a smaller number of mostly full-time, legally qualified coroners; Ensuring family members are notified at significant steps of the process; Introducing a specific regime for body part retention and release; Introducing procedures to manage relationships with the public and statutory investigatory agencies; and Enhancing inquest hearing processes.

I will talk about the proposals relevant to your work in greater detail.

Those of you who are familiar with the Law Commission's proposals will know the appointment of a Chief Coroner was a key recommendation.

Among the Chief Coroner's responsibilities will be determining the areas of work or cases assigned to coroners. This provides greater flexibility than the current system of reporting the death to the nearest coroner, while still maintaining impartiality. While I see coroners largely being assigned to geographical areas, the greater flexibility will allow work to be assigned between coroners to balance workloads and take advantage of any relevant specialist expertise a coroner may have.

There will be fewer coroners in the new system, but they will be well trained and work closely together to deliver a consistent and high quality standard of practice. The majority of coroners will be employed full-time allowing them to build expertise quickly, and spend more time on matters such as public education and building links with cultural and other groups in their communities.

Your Institute has emphasised the importance of coroners being part of their local communities and accessible by families and funeral directors. I agree. While it is true there will be a smaller number of coroners, I want to assure you today this does not mean coroners will work only from the main centres. I envisage that coroners who work in provincial areas will travel on a circuit, and maintaining relationships will be an important part of their role.

Public dissatisfaction about the relationship between coroners and grieving families and the need for better recognition of cultural and spiritual values was a major impetus in the reforms proposed by the Law Commission. On a day-to-day basis you as funeral directors deal with people from the many different cultural and religious groups in our society and respond to their different needs. This sensitivity is something we need to strengthen in the Coroners Act while at the same time ensuring the essential elements of the coroner's investigatory role are not lost.

The wishes of the family and their cultural and spiritual values need to be carefully balanced with the requirements of the state. While the wishes of the family will undoubtedly be taken into account, it will be clear that the coroner has control of the body from the time the death is reported or allocated to the coroner, up until the coroner releases the body or any post-mortem is completed. This will resolve some of the confusion about who has the right to make decisions regarding the body.

The Police have noted this creates a potential gap for them in acting as the agents of coroners from when a body is first found up until it is reported to the coroner. To avoid any doubt, if the death may be one that should be reported to a coroner, the Police will have control of the body. However, this control will be limited to a maximum of 24 hours or until the death is reported to the coroner, whichever is sooner. Once the coroner has control of the body, Police will continue in their usual role as agents of coroners for the purposes of the coronial investigation.

Communication is a key means of achieving a better relationship with families. Families need to receive information at an early point about what happens, the resources available to them and how they can be involved in significant decisions. A key role for the Chief Coroner will be in assessing such needs and developing appropriate material. To help the coroner, the new Act will provide a new definition of "immediate family", although I acknowledge no single definition of family will cover the full range of family-type relationships and the different nuances of relationships within families. The definition includes the deceased person's spouse, including de facto and same-sex partners, as well as the parents, grandparents, children, and brothers and sisters of the deceased. It will also include any person who, in accordance with the traditions and customs of the deceased person's community or whänau, had the responsibility for, or an interest in, the welfare of the person who died.

The new Act will clarify who needs to be notified and when. Clearer notice provisions will help coroners meet family expectations for keeping in touch during the coronial inquest process and ensure the family, or their representative, is notified of matters where they have the right of objection. For practical reasons, the onus will generally be on the family members to provide their contact details to the coroner.

The Law Commission recommended the family or whänau should be able to appoint a family representative to communicate information to and from the family. Appointing a family representative will improve communication in many areas, but there may also be some practical difficulties from time to time, such as if there is some delay before the family representative is appointed. I envisage coroners' training will include advice on how to handle such situations.

The Law Commission recommended the family, with the consent of the coroner, should be given the option of viewing and touching the deceased before the post-mortem. As you are aware, newly bereaved families in many cultures wish to see and be with the deceased, for acceptance of the fact of death, to begin the grieving process and to perform karakia or other initial prayers and ceremonies. However, the family's wishes need to be balanced against other considerations, especially if there are suspicious circumstances around the death. The coroner will be able to authorise family members to view, touch or stay near the body before any post-mortem, or while it is under the coroner's control. The coroner will be able to specify conditions for the contact such as time, place, and the need for Police to be present. The coroner may refuse the request if the viewing may interfere with the integrity of the coronial process. I would expect coroners would warn family about the condition of the body, if that could upset the viewer.

Where a post-mortem has been authorised, the family may also apply to the coroner to allow a doctor, registered nurse or funeral director to be present at the post-mortem as the family's representative. Any costs associated with the family representative's attendance at the post-mortem will be a matter for the family.

When a coroner intends to authorise a post-mortem, the coroner will notify the family or the family representative, explain the reasons and advise them of the right to object to the post-mortem where that right exists.

The objection right will be available where there are no suspicious circumstances, a post-mortem is not required by legislation; and the coroner does not believe there are circumstances requiring the post-mortem to be performed immediately. Allowing objections to post-mortems in some circumstances recognises the distress a post-mortem may cause, especially in terms of cultural and spiritual values.

Any post-mortem results in separation of the body from the family, so delays in post-mortems need to be minimised. The circumstances in which a coroner may order an immediate post-mortem will be extended to include cases where the deceased is an infant or the coroner is satisfied there is good reason for an immediate post-mortem.

To further address delays in return of the body, the legislation will specify more clearly than at present that the coroner may withhold the body for no longer than is necessary to carry out the statutory purposes for which the coroner has control of the body. The legislation will also provide for the body to be released by another coroner where necessary.

There is provision at present for the coroner to give the Police a 24-hour notice of intention to release the body, if there has been no post-mortem. This is a safeguard for cases where the Police have fresh indications of suspicious circumstances. This notice requirement will remain unchanged.

At present, there is no provision for payment of costs incurred in returning the body to the family after any post-mortem, even though the body may have been taken some distance to a regional mortuary for the post-mortem at the State's expense. I am aware this is something funeral directors have expressed concern about.

Under the new legislation the State will meet any return journey costs for the body equivalent to those that would be incurred in returning the body to the place of removal. This will take account of families who may prefer the body to be returned to another place. The costs of transporting bodies will be the responsibility of the Police.

The issue of the retention of body parts has been the source of considerable controversy and concern for families and is not dealt with in the current Coroners Act. The new Act will see a coroner able to authorise the retention of any body part or tissue that the pathologist considers necessary for carrying out the post-mortem, but for no other purpose without the consent of the family.

A pathologist who wishes to retain a body part for the purposes of the post-mortem, must notify the coroner which body part is proposed to be retained, the reason for its retention, and the length of time for which the pathologist proposes to retain the part. If the coroner authorises the retention of the body part, he or she must ensure the family is advised immediately. Families will be able to specify how retained body parts are dealt with when they are no longer required, and indicate whether they wish bodily samples remaining after testing to be returned. The Chief Coroner will develop appropriate protocols for such matters.

Although not part of the review of the Coroners Act, I know funeral directors have been concerned about the availability of pathologists to carry out post-mortem examinations.

Coroners authorise pathologists to perform about 4000 post-mortems annually in New Zealand. The service faces several problems, including a worldwide shortage of forensic pathologists, which must be resolved.

To that end, government officials are working with pathologist and coroner representatives to find a long-term national solution. The objective of this project is to ensure the provision of pathology services to coroners, including the availability of suitably qualified forensic pathologists to perform post-mortems into suspicious and complex deaths, including homicides.

The implementation of the solution for the coronial pathology service is expected to dovetail with the coronial reforms.

Conclusion I hope this outline of the proposed reforms has addressed the areas you are interested in.

The changes to the Coroners Act are designed to build on the best aspects of current practice. I am confident these reforms will enhance public confidence in the system, by improving the quality and consistency of decision-making, and take better account of cultural and spiritual values while maintaining the need to understand the causes and circumstances of death in a timely way.

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