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From the President: Achieving coronial reform

Cite as: September 2014 88 (09) LIJ, p.04

Stricter time constraints on families are a concern.

“Put yourself into the situation of a family that has just lost someone. Why put ourselves through this anyway? . . . [I]t is a hardship reading through every detail in a coronial inquest . . . But if something else comes out of it, if systems can change, then yes, it is worth doing.”

This is part of the opening quote to the Federation of Community Legal Centres (FCLC) issues paper Saving Lives by Joining Up Justice. It is the statement of a mother whose son was fatally shot by police, reflecting on her experience with Victoria’s coronial system. The issues paper makes the case for national coronial reform in Australia, focusing on the impact on families and the current, piecemeal approach to death prevention which means that lessons have not been learned, resulting in more avoidable deaths.

Victoria’s coronial legislation has undergone significant reform in the past 10 years. Following a parliamentary committee review initiated in 2004 the Coroners Act was amended to effect significant changes to the coronial system. The Coroners Act 2008 (Vic), which commenced on 1 November 2009, was designed to enhance the important role played by the coronial process in Victorian society and create a system that is more transparent and accessible to the community.

By this month the Parliament will have debated the Courts Legislation Miscellaneous Amendments Bill 2014. The Bill makes amendments to a number of Acts that regulate the operation of Victorian courts and tribunals. One of these is the Coroners Act 2008.

The amendments proposed to the Coroners Act 2008 include:

  • allowing senior next of kin to verbally waive the 48-hour period in which to object to a direction that an autopsy be performed;
  • reducing the time for bringing an appeal of various decisions from three months to 28 days, including decisions that a death is not reportable, a determination not to hold an inquest, and a decision not to reopen an investigation;
  • reducing the time for bringing an appeal of the findings of a coroner in respect of a death or fire from six months to two months;
  • providing that an inquest need not be held into the death of a person in custody or care where the coroner considers that the death was due to natural causes;
  • providing that the senior next of kin must be given notice of medical examination reports provided to the coroner and may request copies of those reports; and
  • broadening the grounds for appealing to the Supreme Court a decision not to hold or reopen an inquest, so that an appeal will be allowed where the court is satisfied that it is necessary or desirable in the interests of justice.

When the Bill was read for a second time in Parliament, the Attorney-General said that “the amendments proposed to the Coroners Court will assist the court in continuing its progress in reforming operational practices to reduce delays in the coronial process, while remaining sensitive to the needs of senior next of kin and other people affected by the coronial process”.

The FCLC has raised serious concerns with the Bill, arguing that as it stands it contains substantial flaws and should not proceed to legislation. The FCLC is particularly concerned with provisions limiting time periods for certain appeals, and changes to the requirement for coroners to conduct an inquest into the death of a person in custody or care where the coroner considers the death was due to natural causes. They consider that these changes will place stricter time constraints on families who are already without adequate information or appropriate legal help. The risk is that bereaved families will not be able to access appropriate assistance to realise their right of appeal.

Relevantly, the objectives of the reformed Coroners Act 2008 acknowledge the distress experienced by families and their need for support and to be informed about the coronial process following the death of a loved one. However in Saving Lives By Joining Up Justice the FCLC reported that many bereaved families experience the coronial process as traumatic, mystifying, frustrating and disempowering. It is not uncommon for families to find out about their rights to participate when it is too late to try to exercise them meaningfully.

When Victoria’s coronial legislation was reviewed in the mid-2000s, the LIV contributed by making a number of submissions. We acknowledged that relatives and domestic partners could be better represented at a coronial inquest. The LIV joined calls for increased and dedicated legal aid resources for families affected by a coronial investigation or the creation of a specialist community legal centre program to provide legal advice and assistance services in coronial investigations.

In August this year, families who have taken part in the coronial process spoke out against the proposed changes. They said these changes will further weaken the system and add to bereaved families’ distress.

While the reforms proposed by the Bill aim to improve the effectiveness, efficiency and good order of the courts, strong consideration should be given to families’ reported experiences negotiating the coronial system. The LIV will monitor the progress of the Courts Legislation Miscellaneous Amendments Bill 2014 and its impact on access to justice for families taking part in coronial processes.

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