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A coronial system for the 21st Century

24 August 2006

A coronial system for the 21st Century

The passing of the Coroners Bill brings the coronial system into the 21st Century, the Minister of Courts Rick Barker said today.

“Our coroners have done a superb job over the years and are well-respected in their local communities. They play an important role in determining the cause of death and helping prevent further deaths and this legislation strengthens that role”, Rick Barker said.

"The legislation will ensure that the coronial system takes better account of the different cultural and spiritual needs of families.

"It will result in families receiving better information about the coronial process and how it affects them. Under the Bill family members are to be notified at significant steps of the coronial process, said Rick Barker.

A body of up to 20 legally qualified, mostly full-time Coroners will be established, taking the place of the current approximately 55 mostly part-time Coroners. A chief coroner will also be appointed

"The Bill establishes the position of chief coroner to provide leadership and co-ordination and ensure high standards across the country," said Rick Barker.

"Coroners will work in provincial areas as well as the main centres and travel on a circuit basis. Working on a full-time basis will enable coroners to spend time building relationships with communities, and educating people about the role of coroners.

“Many coroners and other people in the community have contributed to the shape of the new coronial system and I am sure that like me they are looking forward to this new era of modern coronial services," said Rick Barker.

The new coronial structure will be operational by 1 July 2007.

Q & A for the Coroners Bill

What does the Coroners Bill do?

This Bill replaces the Coroners Act 1988 and reforms the coronial system to enhance public confidence in its integrity and independence. The Bill also seeks to provide an appropriate balance between the cultural and spiritual needs of families, and the public good associated with understanding, in an accurate and timely way, the causes and circumstances of sudden or unexplained deaths.

What is the coroner’s role?

The coroner’s role is to establish, so far as possible, the cause and circumstances of death in cases of sudden or unexplained deaths and deaths in other special circumstances. The coroner, as an independent judicial officer, acts on behalf of the State to inquire into such deaths.

Why the need for reform?

The Law Commission completed a review of coroners in 2000. A key theme in the recommendations was the need to address the relationships between the coronial system and families, including sensitivity to cultural and spiritual values. Another theme was the need for greater consistency in the coronial system.

Following the Law Commission’s report, the Government reviewed the coronial system. The Coroners Bill draws on both the Law Commission’s recommendations and the Government’s review of the coronial system.

What are the main features of the Bill?

Key elements of the Bill include—
 establishing the office of chief coroner to provide leadership and co-ordination;
 moving to a smaller number of mostly full-time, legally qualified coroners;
 ensuring family members are notified at significant steps of the coronial process;:
 introducing a specific regime for retention and release of body parts and bodily samples;
 promoting co-operation between coroners and other agencies also involved in investigations of deaths; and
 enhancing inquiry and inquest processes.

When does the Bill come into effect?

The Coroners Bill takes full effect on 1 July 2007, however, some transitional arrangements can begin immediately. These include appointing a chief coroner, appointing coroners, and the chief coroner beginning work to prepare for the new system.

How many coroners will there be and what happens to former coroners?

Currently there are about fifty-five, mostly part-time coroners, many of whom deal with only a small number of cases each year. The Bill moves to a system of up to 20 full-time equivalent coroners who will mostly work full-time. No decision has been made about how many coroners will be appointed initially.

The Bill disestablishes all existing coroner positions on 1 July 2007. The positions are disestablished because coroners hold office until retirement at age 68 unless they resign or are removed from office by the Governor-General for specific reasons. All coroners who are legally qualified will be eligible to apply for positions under the Bill.

Former coroners will be able to continue in office for a short time after 1 July 2007 to complete cases they have been working on.

What will the chief coroner do?

The chief coroner’s main function is to oversee the coronial system and ensure that coronial inquiries are conducted orderly and expeditiously. The chief coroner will assign areas of work to coroners and encourage consistency between coroners. The chief coroner will also have a public education role and provide a central point of contact for members of the public and other investigative authorities.

Will reducing the number of coroners disadvantage communities?

No. Coroners will work in provincial areas as well as the main centres and travel on a circuit basis. Working full-time means coroners will have more time to build relationships with communities, local iwi and cultural groups. Working full-time also means that coroners will not have to fit their coronial duties around other employment commitments.

Where will coroners be located?

No decisions have been made yet about where coroners will be located. Officials are investigating a number of options about the number of coroners and where they might be located. The chief coroner will be responsible for deciding what areas a particular coroner will be responsible for.

What does the Coroners Bill mean for families?

The Bill makes some important changes to recognise the needs of families including:

- a broad definition of “immediate family” to provide flexibility and recognise culturally-based family groupings such as whänau, hapū and iwi;
- the right to appoint a family representative to liaise with the coroner;
- a requirement to notify family representatives and family of significant matters in the coronial process;
- a limited right to object to a post-mortem examination in non-suspicious deaths;
- allowing families, with the coroner’s permission, to view, touch or remain near the body;
- allowing the family to appoint a representative to attend the post-mortem;
- introducing requirements for removal and retention of body parts and bodily samples;
- extending the circumstances in which a post-mortem can be performed early; and
- meeting the costs of transferring the body back when it is removed to another location for a post-mortem examination.

Will the Bill create delays in returning the body to the family?

There may be some minor delays if the family objects to the coroner’s decision to direct a post-mortem examination (which they can only do if the death is not regarded as suspicious). If the family objects to the post-mortem, the Bill sets out a process for dealing with the objection as quickly as possible. If the family and the coroner are unable to agree, the family can seek a decision from the High Court.

Does the Coroners Bill restrict the making public of details about suicide?

Yes, the legislation continues the existing restrictions on making public details of self-inflicted deaths, but takes a more flexible approach. Details of a self-inflicted death cannot be made public (beyond the name, address, occupation, and the finding of self-inflicted death), unless authorised by the coroner. Details can only be made public where the making public of those details is unlikely to be detrimental to public safety.

Why is there a restriction on making public of details of a suicide?

The restriction on making public information about self-inflicted deaths helps to prevent suicide (particularly imitative or “copycat” suicide), and protects the deceased person’s and family’s privacy. It is consistent with the New Zealand Suicide Prevention Strategy which promotes the safe reporting and portrayal of suicidal behaviour by the media.

ENDS

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