The Territory Coroner`s Functions and the Coroner`s Court

The Territory Coroner’s Functions
and the Coroner’s Court
by Sonia Brownhill
William Forster Chambers
© Sept 2011
The office of Coroner
• A very ancient common law office
To keep the King’s records
To collect and guard the “chance” revenues
To hear the swearing of abjuration
To hold an inquisitio where a person found dead
• Coroner’s functions were first provided for by statute
in 1276
• Coroners Act 1993 (NT)
Office of coroner (s4)
Territory Coroner = a magistrate appointed by Administrator
All magistrates hold the office of coroner
Office of deputy coroner (s5)
Coroner’s functions - generally
• Section 34(1): Coroner’s findings
– A coroner investigating a death shall, if possible, find:
The identity of the deceased person
The time and place of death
The cause of death
The particulars needed to register the death under the Births,
Deaths and Marriages Registration Act
• Any relevant circumstances concerning the death
• Section 34(2): Coroner’s comment on public health or
safety or the administration of justice
• Section 35(2): Coroner’s recommendations to
Attorney on public health or safety or the
administration of justice
• Section 35(3): Coroner’s report to Commissioner of
Police and DPP if believes a crime may have been
What deaths are investigated by the
• Any death which is or may be a “reportable death” is to
be investigated (s14)
• Reportable death defined by s12:
– death with a Territory nexus
– unexpected, unnatural or violent, or resulting from an accident
or injury
– during or as a result of an anaesthetic
– of a person held in care or custody
child in CEO’s care under Care and Protection of Children Act
patient pursuant to Mental Health and Related Services Act
person in custody or control of police officer, prison officer
person in, travelling to or escaping from prison or detention centre
How is a reportable death investigated?
• Reportable deaths must be reported to a
coroner: s12(2), (3), (5)
• Coroner’s constable undertakes investigation
on behalf of coroner
• Coroner’s constable prepares the coroner’s
• Critical part of investigation is the autopsy
• Investigation may include an inquest
• Coroner’s discretion in s20(1) to direct that
autopsy be performed
• Almost invariable practice that autopsy
• What occurs in an autopsy?
• Coroner to notify senior next of kin if directs
an autopsy to be performed: s22
• Senior next of kin may object to an autopsy,
and may apply to Supreme Court for order
that no autopsy be performed: s23
Objection to autopsy
• Wuridjal v NT Coroner (2001) 165 FLR 317
– Riley J held: autopsy should be performed
– not a review of coroner’s decision; Court exercises discretion
– balancing exercise:
• family be permitted to follow their culture or religion versus
• cause of an otherwise unexplained death be ascertained if
• Raymond-Hewitt v NT Coroner (2011)
– Kelly J held: no autopsy be performed
– Reasons to come, but clear HH’s view was that autopsy
would not definitely ascertain the cause of death
• Marika v NT Coroner (2009)
– an unusual way through
• When must an inquest be held? s15(1)
– the death is or may be a reportable death and
– the deceased was, immediately before the death, a person
held in care and custody or
– the death was caused or contributed to by injuries sustained
while in custody or
– the identity of the deceased is not known
• When may an inquest be held?
– s15(1A): if the coroner thinks fit, where:
• the death is or may be a reportable death and
• the body of the deceased is in the Territory or the death or the
cause of death occurred in the Territory and
• the coroner suspects unlawful killing
– s15(2): as the coroner thinks fit, where:
• the death is or may be a reportable death
What happens in an inquest?
Territory Coroner presides
Public process in open court
Inquisitorial, not adversarial
But familiar to litigation lawyers:
– Coroner assisted by counsel assisting
• Decides what issues are
• What witnesses to be called
• Makes opening address and closing submissions
– Parties with sufficient interest may appear, be
represented, call witnesses, cross-examine
witnesses and make submissions (s40(2))
– Findings delivered and written reasons published
Inquest – discretion to hold
• Coroner’s decision not to hold inquest to be notified
to senior next of kin: s16(1)
• They have 14 days to bring application in Supreme
Court for order that inquest be held: s16(2)
• Supreme Court may, if it thinks fit, order that inquest
be held: s16(3)
• Taing & Nuon v NT Coroner [2011] NTSC 58:
– Blokland J held no inquest be held
– Whether to order an inquest depends on whether there is
available credible and reliable evidence which raises a real
possibility of a determined cause of death
– There was a comprehensive investigation by Police and an
inquest would be futile
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