Role of the Coroner
Coroners investigate certain kinds of deaths in order to determine the identity of the deceased and the date, place, circumstances and medical cause of death. Coroners also investigate the cause and origin of fires and explosions. In short, the Coroner’s role is to find out what happened, not to point the finger or lay blame. Read more about the circumstances in which a death must be reported to the Coroner.
In some cases, inquests are held and witnesses are called to give evidence of their knowledge of the circumstances of the case under investigation.
Power to make recommendations
Following an inquest, coroners may make recommendations to governments and other agencies with a view to improving public health and safety. The Coroner has no power to enforce compliance with such recommendations. It is a matter for the relevant government minister(s) or agencies to determine whether a Coroner’s recommendations should be adopted. Since 1 July 2009, the responses by government ministers and agencies to coronial recommendations have been published by the Department of Justice.
Power to refer to Director of Public Prosecutions
The Coroner cannot find someone guilty of a crime. If, at any time during the course of an inquest or inquiry, the Coroner forms an opinion that a known person has committed an indictable offence in connection with the death the Coroner is required to suspend the inquest or inquiry and refer the matter to the Director of Public Prosecutions. It is entirely a matter for the Director of Public Prosecutions to determine whether charges should be laid against the person, and a matter for the criminal courts to determine whether the person is guilty.
Similary, the Coroner cannot determine civil liability, although the Coroner’s finding may be relied upon in subsequent civil proceedings and/or insurance claims.
Power to summon witnesses, issue subpoenas and order arrest
The Coroner may summon witnesses, and people found lying are guilty of perjury. Additional powers of the Coroner include the power of subpoena, the power of arrest, the power to administer oaths, and the power to sequester juries of six during inquests.
Further powers of the Coroner include:
- authorising a police officer or other person to enter any place and gather evidence, similar to a search warrant
- the power to retain possession of the body of a person whose death is reportable to the Coroner. Burial or cremation of such bodies must be authorised by the Coroner.
- clearing court in certain circumstances and preventing publication of certain evidence
- authorising or directing post mortem examinations
- authorising the retention of whole organs (if the coroner is satisfied that the retention is necessary or desirable to assist in the investigation of the manner or cause of the person’s death)
- directing the exhumation of a body for the purpose of a post mortem examination.
In some situations, the decision of a Coroner can be reviewed or appealed.