How do I find out why my relative died?

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How do I find out why my relative died?

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Adapted from a paper by Robert Cavanagh- Barrister-at -Law

Coroners Investigations

Summary of Coroners Investigations

  • Suspicious deaths
  • Deaths following medical treatment
  • Deaths in custody
  • Deaths of children who are in care or who have been reported under Children and Young Persons (Care and Protection) Act 1998
  • Deaths of disabled people who is subject to provisions of the Disability Services Act 1993
  • Fires

Who are coroners?

In New South Wales there is a State Coroner, there are also Deputy State Coroners and Magistrates who can also perform the duties of coroners. They can hold investigations into deaths and fires that can involve formal hearings called inquests. The rules of evidence do not apply at such hearings but relatives of a deceased person and other interested parties may be legally represented.

Not every case involving a death results in a formal hearing by a coroner. However, relatives of a deceased person may be concerned enough about the manner and cause of a death to want it better explained and investigated.

The information provided below is designed to assist with understanding of the main duties of coroners. After reading this information if further assistance is needed with a case involving the death of a relative contact: O’Brien Winter Partners, Ph. 4949 2000.

The Main Duties of Coroners

The Coroners Act 2009 (NSW) enables coroners to, amongst other things:

  • investigate certain kinds of deaths or suspected deaths in order to determine the identities of the deceased persons, the times and dates of their deaths and the manner and cause of their deaths;
  • investigate fires and explosions that destroy or damage property within the State in order to determine the causes and origins of (and in some cases, the general circumstances concerning) such fires and explosions;
  • to make recommendations in relation to matters in connection with an inquest or inquiry (including recommendations concerning public health and safety and the investigation or review of matters by persons or bodies) and;
  • to provide for certain kinds of deaths or suspected deaths to be reported and to prevent death certificates being issued in relation to certain reportable deaths’.

The manner and cause of death is the primary focus of a coroner’s investigation of a death. Determining the manner of the death can often involve a detailed investigation into the surrounding circumstances even if the cause of the death is clear. The making of recommendations often arises out of inquests and they are designed to assist with preventing such deaths in the future.

A coroner can also play a role in assisting police in homicide investigations where the identification of an offender, sufficient to allow a criminal charge, has not occurred. A coroner is required to take into account the interests of relatives, where such interests are raised.

Apart from investigation of death cases, coroners can investigate the origin and cause of fires.
The coroner is an investigator, and sometimes in the position of a last resort facilitator for police investigators.

What deaths cases can a coroner investigate?

A coroner can hold an inquest (an inquiry) where a death is reportable or where a medical practitioner has not given a certificate as to the cause of death. (section 21) If a certificate showing the cause of death has been given by a medical practitioner, an inquest can still be held where the death is reportable. The meaning of a reportable is reasonably broad involving the following circumstances:

  • the person died a violent or unnatural death;
  • the person died a sudden death the cause of which is unknown;
  • the person died under suspicious or unusual circumstances;
  • the person died in circumstances where the person had not been attended by a medical practitioner during the period of 6 months immediately before the person’s death;
  • the person died in circumstances where the person’s death was not the reasonably expected outcome of a health-related procedure carried out in relation to the person;
  • the person died while in or temporarily absent from a declared mental health facility within the meaning of the Mental Health Act 2007 and while the person was a patient at the facility for the purpose of receiving care, treatment or assistance under the Mental Health Act 2007 or Mental Health (Forensic Provisions) Act 1990. (section 6)

Death of a Child in Care

A coroner has the jurisdiction to also hold an inquest into the death of a child in care or a child in respect of whom a report was made under Part 2 of Chapter 3 of the Children and Young Persons (Care and Protection) Act 1998 within the period of 3 years immediately preceding the child’s death, or a child who is a sibling of a child in respect of whom a report was made under Part 2 of Chapter 3 of the Children and Young Persons (Care and Protection) Act 1998 within the period of 3 years immediately preceding the child’s death, or a child whose death is or may be due to abuse or neglect or that occurs in suspicious circumstances. (section 24)

Death of a Disabled Person

A coroner can investigate the death of a person (whether or not a child) who, at the time of the person’s death, was living in, or was temporarily absent from, residential care provided by a service provider and authorised or funded under the Disability Services Act 1993 or a residential centre for disabled persons, or a person (other than a child in care) who is in a target group within the meaning of the Disability Services Act 1993 who receives from a service provider assistance (of a kind prescribed by the regulations) to enable the person to live independently in the community. (section 24)

General Circumstances Where a Death Should be Investigated

The Coroners Act 2009 provides for general circumstances where there is a requirement to hold an inquest. These are:

  • if it appears to the coroner concerned that the person died or might have died as a result of homicide (not including suicide);
  • if the jurisdiction to hold the inquest arises under section 23 (this section requires inquests in death in custody cases;
  • if it appears to the coroner concerned that:
  • it has not been sufficiently disclosed whether the person has died, or
  • the person’s identity and the date and place of the person’s death have not been sufficiently disclosed,
  • if it appears to the coroner concerned that the manner and cause of the person’s death have not been sufficiently disclosed. (section 27)

Decision Not to Hold an Inquest

In certain circumstances a coroner can decide not to hold an inquest. The decision not to hold an inquest can be based on the fact that: ‘the deceased person died of natural causes (whether or not the precise cause of death is known), and a senior next of kin of the deceased person has indicated to the coroner that it is not the wish of the deceased person’s family that a post mortem examination be conducted on the deceased to determine the precise cause of the deceased’s death’. (section 25) The coroner who decided not to hold the inquest can change this decision based on ‘the discovery of new evidence or facts makes it necessary or desirable in the interests of justice to hold the inquest’. (section 25)

When a coroner decides not to hold an inquest they must provide written reasons if: ‘the State Coroner, the Minister, [or] any person who, in the opinion of the coroner, has a sufficient interest of any kind in the circumstances of the death or suspected death’. (section 26)

The Coroners Act 2009 also has provision for overriding a coroner’s decision not to hold an inquest.

 

Coroners Act 2009
NSW Coroners Office
Legal Aid NSW

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