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Goff Speech To New Zealand Coroners Conference

Hon Phil Goff
Minister of Justice
Speech Notes

2 November 2001 – embargoed until 8pm

[Delivered at New Zealand Coroners conference – James Cook Centra, Wellington]

Mr Richard McElrea, Chairman of the Coroners Council, Ladies and Gentlemen

Thank you for the invitation to be with you this evening on the first day of your conference.

To the distinguished overseas guests, I add my welcome and hope that you enjoy your stay in New Zealand.

As many of you are aware, I share ministerial responsibility for the coronial system with the Minister for Courts, Hon Matt Robson. I offer his apologies as he cannot be here this evening.

We acknowledge the important contribution coroners make to our society and thank you for your dedication and service.

The primary responsibility of the state is to protect the lives of its citizens.
When sudden or violent death occurs we have to be able to find the cause and to determine what action is necessary to prevent or reduce the risk of future such incidents.

The coroner’s role is to carry out that responsibility in an effective way, while respecting the sensitivities of the family in its grief.

By and large coroners in New Zealand have performed their roles professionally and effectively. From time to time, however, there has been controversy. This has focussed on issues such as retention of body parts and delays in releasing the body of the deceased.
It has sometimes involved allegations of lack of personal or cultural sensitivity.
There has been debate over the unnecessary conduct of, or conversely failure to conduct, an inquest.
There has been objection about adverse comments about the deceased or other persons.

A formal review of coroners undertaken by the Law Commission in 1999 found consensus about systemic problems.

The overwhelming response to the Commission’s discussion paper from submitters was that, despite the high ability and sensitivity of many involved, the system was patchy, unsystematic and inadequate.

The Commission drew attention to concerns that the effectiveness of the system was undermined by problems such as a lack of any centralised recording system which would allow patterns of deaths to be discerned and responded to effectively to reduce future injury and preventable deaths.

It highlighted an absence of co-ordination and the need for a Chief Coroner’s Office to allow improved oversight of coroners and their practices and better procedures for appointment and training.

The Commission also noted the perception that too little regard was taken of the cultural values and beliefs of communities, particularly Maori cultural values and beliefs. Families of the deceased needed more sensitive support and better information about post mortems and inquests.
It was difficult, the Commission noted, to imagine a context requiring clearer and more systematic communication skills than in this area but the system fell short.

In its subsequent final report in the latter part of last year, the Law Commission drew together two major themes.
The first was the need to reconcile the public interest in effective determination of the cause of death with the particular cultural, religious and personal beliefs of many New Zealanders.
The second was the need to enable systematic comparison of coronial experience nationwide by the establishment of the Office of Chief Coroner.

In all the Commission made 69 recommendations, requiring sufficient amendments to the Coroners Act to require a complete rewrite and also significant new funding.

The Law Commission’s report is currently with the Ministry of Justice and Department for Courts. An initial Cabinet paper is being prepared which will establish a working group and a consultation process with relevant bodies including your own.
The outcome of that process will be formal recommendations on policy change with a necessary input from Treasury having regard to financial implications.

However, much of the change recommended by the Law Commission are already being taken into account.

Examples are recommendations relating to the need for legally qualified coroners, moving to a system of full-time coroners, regionalising the coronial districts and improving services to coroners.

The appointment of two full-time coroners in Auckland to service its major population base is a step forward.
These appointments included a comprehensive range of terms and conditions that I believe is a first for coroners in New Zealand.
All recent appointees have legal qualifications.

When considering options following the retirement of incumbent coroners in smaller districts I have generally amalgamated those duties with neighbouring coroners rather than make a new appointment.

The Department for Courts has reviewed and improved its administrative support services to the coroners in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch – who together account for more than 50% of the workload of coroners.

As well, the Department for Courts now reimburses all reasonable expenses incurred by coroners.

The New Zealand Police have also been reviewing their statutory responsibilities with a view to improving services.

I have also asked the Ministry to consider a request I received via Steve Chadwick to allow the development in Rotorua of a system of on-call GPs to reduce the number of autopsies usually undertaken by pathologists, who are in short supply.
If this can be achieved it would help reduce delays in releasing bodies to bereaved families.

Should this proposal be able to be implemented so as to maintain the independence of the coroner’s inquiries, fulfil the legal requirements of the Coroners Act and the Births, Deaths and Marriages Registration Act and without increasing financial costs, I am
willing to promote an amendment to the Coroners (Fees) Regulations to facilitate it happening.

I would like now in the time available to offer a layperson’s comments on three of the Law Commission’s key recommendations.

I do so, of course, without pre-empting either the advice or recommendations that will be made by the Ministry of Justice and other agencies and groups which will be consulted or indeed the final decisions to be made by Cabinet taking into account financial and other implications.

The first is the proposal to appoint a Chief Coroner.
This person would oversee the system to ensure coroners operate effectively and efficiently. He/she would issue guidelines on the role of coroners and the performance of coronial functions.

The office would act as a public contact point including for complaints, and would also follow up on the implementation of the coroners’ recommendations.

I support the establishment of such a position. Virtually all courts and tribunals have a Head of Bench to fulfil such functions.

I believe that this office among other things would help ensure greater consistency of practice and would have a key role in identifying training requirements and ensuring they are met. Both of these are vital functions.

A small Office of Chief Coroner would be needed to provide support functions including a Kaiwhakahaere (co-ordinator) position to advise on Tikanga Maori, and an administrator of the proposed national coronial information database.
The office would produce an annual report on progress on implementing the recommendations from coronial inquests.

Excluding the cost of a database administrator, a rough estimated cost of this office would be around $750,000 per annum, which is a significant amount.

The second recommendation relates to the establishment of a national coronial information database.

The Law Commission identifies a need for this though it makes no formal recommendations for it.

The database would allow the systematic collection of accurate coronial data and information.
It would assist coroners in performing their role, leading to a more systematic approach to findings.
It would also help researchers to identify emerging trends important to developing strategies for injury and death prevention.

For these reasons I support the proposal.

A working party should be established to develop the proposal including its financial implications and report to Government.
Implementing this proposal, if agreed to, would likely be part of a second stage in implementing reforms.

The third and final recommendation I would like to address relates to family and cultural concerns.

I endorse the acknowledgement in the report that effective communication and consultation with families throughout the coronial process is essential. Families must be involved as much as possible. Coroners need to ensure that families receive accurate and ongoing information about what to expect from the coronial process and the system
should respect and reflect to the extent possible differences in cultural values and practices.

The Coroners Act 1988 already requires the coroner to have regard to these factors.
Establishing a Kaiwhakahaere position in the Office of the Chief Coroner would reflect the success of a similar position in the Office of the Health and Disability Commissioner.
The work of the Kaiwhakahaere should enhance the cultural responsiveness of coroners through the provision of advice to individual coroners, development of guidelines for all coroners and the establishment of training programmes including on Tikanga Maori.

I am less certain about the recommendation to allow the family of the deceased to have the right to apply to the High Court to challenge a coroner’s decision to conduct a post-mortem or inquest.
While families may find post-mortems distressing, coroners often rely heavily on the post-mortem report and the process, while privately distressing, will often be necessary in the public interest. More consideration will be given to this issue and the question of
whether suicide deaths should be subject to a compulsory inquest before final decisions are made.

My last comments this evening relate to the timetable for change.

As a member of Government, I constantly find the time taken to achieve change frustratingly slow.

However, I concede that it is important that the process of consultation is properly worked through and that the first priority has to be to endeavour to get the reform process right.
I must acknowledge too that Ministry officials often face considerable workloads which cannot easily be alleviated because of fiscal constraints.

A further problem however is the parliamentary process itself.

The timetable for policy and drafting work is affected by the ability to introduce and pass the legislation through the House. This is a bottleneck that slows the process down.

Together with my two associate Ministers of Justice, I have on my legislative programme around 50 bills at present, 11 of which are currently before Parliament and others in various stages of preparation.
MMP has many advantages. However, facilitating the passage of legislation has not yet proven to be one of them.

It is the time-honoured practice of Opposition parties under the guise of carefully scrutinising legislation, to impose delays. Sometimes this is warranted. But even the casual listener to Parliament will distinguish filibustering techniques.

Normally this is overcome through the use of urgency by Government, but we are a minority government and the Greens on whom we rely for a majority will not generally vote for urgency.

Together with the shortened parliamentary year in 2002 because of the election, this means that the new Coroners’ Bill, along with much else, will most likely not be able to be introduced until early 2003.

In the meantime, I will next year seek Cabinet approval for the general policy settings so that instructions can be prepared and forwarded to Parliamentary Counsel for the Bill to be drafted.

In conclusion, can I once again express my appreciation for the work of the Coroners’ Council and the services performed by your members.
I look forward to working in consultation with you to advance the reform process.
I wish you an enjoyable evening and a successful conference over the next two days.


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