General information for family members and other persons with a 'Sufficient Interest'
The Coroners Court is established under the Queensland Coroners Act 2003 (Qld) (the Act).
A death must be reported to the Coroner where:
- the identity of the deceased is not known;
- the death was violent, suspicious or otherwise unnatural. A death is violent or unnatural if it is caused by accident, suicide or homicide such as car accidents, drug overdoses, electrocutions and industrial and domestic accidents.
- a death certificate has not been issued;
- the death was a death in custody;
- the death was a health care related death or a death in care;
- the death happened in the course of or as a result of a police operation.
These are called “Reportable Deaths”. Generally the Coroner will investigate a Reportable Death.
The role of the Coroner is to establish, if possible:
- who the deceased person is;
- how the person died;
- when the person died;
- where the person died and in particular whether the person died in Queensland;
- what caused the person to die.
The primary focus is not to determine whether someone should be held criminally or civilly liable for the death. It may be however that issues of criminal and/or civil liability arise as a consequence of the coronial process.
Police will generally begin an investigation of the death immediately and will prepare an initial report for the Coroner. The Coroner can also conduct examinations and inspections deemed necessary by the Coroner for the purpose of the investigation.
Whenever the Coroner proposes to investigate a Reportable Death, some level of autopsy will usually be required.
The autopsy can be limited to an external examination of the body or can involve a partial or full internal examination of the body as well.
The police are required to canvass the family’s attitude to an autopsy and report this to the Coroner.
Family members are entitled to have their views considered when the Coroner is making a decision on the extent of the autopsy to be performed. If the Coroner considers it necessary to override the family’s concerns, the Coroner must provide the family with written reasons for that decision. The family can have that decision reviewed by the State Coroner or the District Court.
Family members are also entitled to receive a copy of the autopsy findings unless release of that information might hinder or compromise a criminal investigation.
Inquests are held in only a small number of Reportable Deaths investigated by the Coroner.
Generally an Inquest will be held whenever there is a reasonable doubt about the cause or circumstances of the death or if it is in the public interest to do so. However the Coroner must hold an inquest in relation to particular deaths, for example a death in custody.
Any person has a right to request that an inquest be held, to receive written reasons if the investigating Coroner declines to hold an inquest and to appeal that decision to either the State Coroner or the District Court within 14 days of receiving the written reasons.
The Coroner will notify all persons with a legitimate interest in an inquest of the date, place and time of the inquest and a public notice will also be placed in a newspaper. The senior family member will also receive notice.
The notice will set out the issues that are proposed to be examined at the inquest.
All persons with a sufficient interest should be given leave to appear at the inquest, to examine witnesses and to make submissions. This includes a family member.
A person who is given leave to appear may appear in person or may be represented by a lawyer.
There will usually be a pre inquest conference at which counsel assisting the Coroner will outline the evidence, tender the brief of evidence, settle the list of witnesses who are to appear and deal with procedural issues. Applications for leave to appear at the Inquest are usually dealt with at this time.
The Inquest is not bound by the rules of evidence but is bound by the principles of natural justice and procedural fairness.
The proceedings are recorded and subject to some restrictions set out in the Act and the transcript is publically available upon payment of a fee.
The Coroner’s findings are published and a copy given to a family member and any person who as a person with a sufficient interest appeared at the Inquest.
The coroner must not include in his or her findings a statement that a person may be criminally or civilly liable but may comment on matters involving public health or safety, the administration of justice or on ways to prevent deaths from happening in similar circumstances in the future.
The interests of family members
The Act gives to families in most circumstances:
- The right to advise the Coroner at an early stage of any concerns they have regarding the circumstances of the death. This can be done in writing or through the coronial counsellor;
- The right to have their views considered by the Coroner in relation to the extent of any proposed autopsy;
- The right to have their views considered by the Coroner in relation to any decision to retain organs or tissues of the deceased for further examination;
- The right to receive reports, information and documents relevant to the investigation of the death within a reasonable timeframe;
- The right to be given leave to appear in person or by lawyer at any Inquest and to examine witnesses and make submissions; and
- The right to receive copies of the Coroners’ findings and comments.
In certain circumstances, where for example the release of information may prejudice a criminal investigation, the information will not be released to the family.
Family members will be identified in the form 1 report which the police will provide to the Coroner after the initial visit to the family. The Coroner’s staff and Coronial counsellors will use this information to identify the senior family member according to a hierarchy set out in the Act. The senior family member will then generally be the point of contact with the Coroner.
The police will also set out in the form 1 the family’s attitude to an autopsy.
A coronial counsellor will usually visit the family shortly after the form 1 report is received by the Coroner from the police.
The family are also entitled to express any concerns in writing to the Coroner at all reasonable times.
If the Coroner considers it necessary to proceed with an autopsy contrary to the wishes of the family, the Coroner must give the family written reasons for doing so. The family can then have that decision reviewed by the State Coroner or the District Court.
A person including a family member who is dissatisfied with a finding at an inquest may apply to the State Coroner or the District Court to set aside the finding. The Court may make an order to reopen the inquest or to hold a new inquest if the Court is satisfied that there is new evidence that casts doubt on the finding or if the finding could otherwise not be supported by the evidence.
The information in this resource is for general information purposes only. If you would like help with a legal problem, you may be eligible for assistance from a LawRight service or clinic.
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