Death Investigation and the Evolving Role of the Coroner

ABSTRACT Death is a subject which has long inspired extraordinary art, music and literature. Currently, in one form or another, it dominates our television screens and our cinematic experiences. It continues to preoccupy, fascinate, confront, repel and terrify us. Contemporary necrographers, sociologists of death and scholars on palliative care have highlighted the extent to which in the aftermath of the two World Wars and in the era of institutionalisation and medicalisation of death we have a different, more removed relationship with our ancient foe - western communities are alienated from death like no previous civilisation. But that does not detract from the reality of grieving, bereavement and the need to try to learn how in future to prevent preventable deaths. These responses to the phenomenon of death and its appurtenances play an important role in the dynamics that generate our perceived needs for investigation of deaths which are sudden, unexplained or otherwise not readily accountable. We need to understand the causes of such deaths; to set the public record straight about them; to take criminal and civil action against malefactors, where appropriate; to learn the lessons that are to be learned from tragedies; and to avoid avoidable deaths. Traditionally, our principal means to these various ends has been the institution of the coroner. This address scrutinises the roles of the coroner in the context of the 1 July 2007 commencement of the Coroners Act 2006 (NZ), the latest in an extensive series of reforms of the contemporary role of the coroner. It argues that the most recent reforms are an important consolidation of the evolving role of the coroner but that further consideration needs to be given to the changing relationship between coronership and public health and safety.

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    ABSTRACT: Inquests held into deaths perform important functions, not only in determining the facts relevant to the death, but also in investigating and making recommendations on matters of public safety. Coronial legislation allows a number of parties to appear at inquests but a right of appearance without the possibility of legal representation is an illusory right. There are persuasive arguments for allocating funding for grants of legal aid to persons appearing at inquests and particularly to families. However, the demands on public legal aid funds are overwhelming and there are many competing needs. Historically, legal aid has not been available at inquests. Justifications for this are considered and whether government legal aid funding for advice and representation should be available to individuals involved in coroners' inquests and in what circumstances. The nature of the inquest process, indications of need for legal assistance, the level of assistance currently provided, defining what is the "public interest" for legal aid purposes in an inquest and the detriment suffered by individuals or the community if assistance is not available, are examined.
    Journal of law and medicine 03/2008; 15(4):587-601.