The Coroner's Court was established by the Coroners Act 1956 and continues in existence under the Coroners Act 1997. The role of the Coroner's Court is to conduct inquests into deaths and inquiries into fires and disasters.
Magistrates are Coroners
All ACT Magistrates are also coroners and the Chief Magistrate is the Chief Coroner. The Registrar of the Magistrates Court is also the Registrar of the Coroner's Court.
Inquest into deaths
A Coroner must hold an inquest – that is, investigate – the manner and cause of death of persons who die or who are suspected to have died in circumstances specified by legislation. This includes deaths in custody, people who have not seen a doctor in some time, accidental deaths, deaths in unknown circumstances, and certain health-care related deaths.
The full and current list of categories of deaths that the Coroner must investigate can be found via this link: http://www.austlii.edu.au/au/legis/act/consol_act/ca1997120/s13.html
Death in custody
A death in custody is a death that occurs in one of the circumstances set out in section 3C of the Coroners Act 1997. Deaths in custody include the death of a person at a correctional facility or lockup, while performing work under a community service order and while in, being taken into, or after being taken into the custody of a custodial officer. For purposes of the Coroners Act 1997 deaths in custody also include deaths resulting from a fatal injury sustained in similar places or circumstances to deaths in custody.
Investigation by the police
The Coroner's Office arranges for members of the Australian Federal Police to investigate the circumstances surrounding the death of a person and to provide a report to the Coroner. In such an investigation the police officers are acting for, and under the control of, the Coroner. Any action taken by the Coroner is contingent upon this report and the report of the post-mortem examination.
Waiver of need for hearing
A Coroner may decide not to conduct a hearing into a death if, after consideration of information given to the Coroner relating to the death of a person, the Coroner is satisfied that the manner and cause of death are sufficiently disclosed and a hearing is unnecessary. Where a Coroner decides not to conduct a hearing into a death the Coroner must give written notice of the decision setting out the grounds for the decision to a member of the immediate family of the deceased.
A person may request a coroner to hold a hearing. If the coroner refuses, the person may apply to the Chief Coroner for the review of the decision by the Coroner not to hold a hearing.
Control of the body
If a death happens in relation to which a coroner is required to hold an inquest and the body of the deceased is in the ACT the Coroner has control of the body until he or she issues a certificate releasing it.
Dispensing with a post-mortem
A member of the immediate family of the deceased person or a representative of that person (such as a doctor or legal practitioner) may ask for a post-mortem examination to be dispensed with. A Coroner may dispense with a post-mortem examination if he or she is satisfied that the manner and cause of the death are sufficiently clear without the need for such an examination.
Consideration of immediate family
A Coroner holding an inquest into a death (other than a death in custody) may, if requested to do so by a member of the immediate family of the deceased or a representative of that person, authorise:
(a) the viewing of the body of the deceased by the member or a representative of that member;
(b) an inspection of the scene of the death by the member or a representative of that member (such as a doctor or legal practitioner);
(c) an inspection of the scene of an event which, in the opinion of the coroner, may have resulted in the death of the person;
(d) the member or a representative of that member (such as a doctor or legal practitioner) to be present at any post-mortem examination conducted on the body, or
(e) the same or another doctor to conduct a further post-mortem examination on the body.
If a Coroner refuses to give an authorisation for any of the above matters on the ground that he or she believes that it would not be in the public interest or the interests of justice to do so, the Coroner must give to the person who made the request written notice of the refusal and an explanation for the refusal.
The Coroners Act 1997 defines ‘immediate family’ in relation to a deceased person the subject of an inquest to mean:
(a) a person who was the domestic partner of the deceased, or a parent, grandparent, child, brother or sister, or guardian or ward, of the deceased; and
(b) if the deceased was an Aboriginal person or Torres Strait Islander—a person who, in accordance with the traditions and customs of the Aboriginal or Torres Strait Island community of which the deceased was a member, had the responsibility for, or an interest in, the welfare of the deceased.
A Coroner holding an inquest must find, if possible:
* the identity of the deceased;
* when and where the death happened;
* the manner and cause of death, and
* in the case of the suspected death of a person — that the person has died.
Inquiries into fires
A Coroner must hold an inquiry into the cause and origin of a fire that has destroyed or damaged property if requested to do so by the Attorney-General, or the Coroner is of the opinion that an inquiry into the cause and origin of the fire should be held.
Inquiries into disasters
The Chief Coroner must, if requested to do so by the Attorney General, cause an inquiry to be held into the cause and origin of a disaster.
Findings of inquiries
A Coroner holding an inquiry must find, if possible:
* the cause and origin of the fire or disaster, and
* the circumstances in which the fire or disaster happened.
Hearings for inquests and inquiries
Where there is to be a hearing the Coroner will fix a time and place for the hearing. For purposes of an inquest where the Court has notice of the whereabouts of a member of the immediate family of the deceased the Court will notify the family member of the time and place for the hearing.
The time and date for the hearing will be published in the Canberra Times at least 14 days prior to the hearing.
Generally, a lawyer from the office of the Director of Public Prosecutions will be appointed by the Coroner to assist the Coroner at the hearing.
Hearings are conducted in public unless the Coroner believes that the public interest requires the hearing or part of the hearing to take place in private.
A person summoned to give evidence at a hearing, or a person with sufficient interest in the subject matter of the inquest or inquiry, may be given leave by the Coroner to appear in person at the hearing or to be represented by a lawyer. A person who is granted leave to appear at a hearing is entitled to examine and cross-examine witnesses on matters relevant to the inquest or inquiry to which the hearing relates.
Complying with a subpoena
A Coroner may subpoena a person to give evidence or produce a thing or documents at a time and date specified in the subpoena.
If you have received a subpoena to produce documents or things to the Coroner and are not required to give evidence you may comply with the subpoena by producing the documents or things to the Coroner before the date specified on the subpoena. In such case the documents should be delivered to the Court Registry in the Magistrates Court Building Knowles Place, Canberra City.
If you are served with a subpoena to give evidence you will need to attend the hearing at the time and place specified in the subpoena. If you are unable to attend the hearing as required you should contact the Court Registry as soon as possible after receiving the subpoena.
At the time of being served with the subpoena you will be given an undertaking to appear which you must sign and return to the coroner. You will also be given an expenses form to complete to claim your expenses for attendance at the hearing.
If you fail to comply with a subpoena served on you the coroner may issue a warrant for your arrest. If you are arrested for failing to comply with a subpoena you will be taken before the Coroner who may direct that you be held in custody or be released on a recognisance to return to court at a specified time. Failure to appear at the later time may lead to you being arrested again and your recognisance being forfeited.
A Coroner is not bound to observe the rules of evidence. Evidence is taken under oath.
Access to documents
If you are considered to have sufficient interest in the inquest or inquiry the Coroner may make available to you any evidence that is produced at, or that the Coroner intends to consider, at the inquest or inquiry. If you wish to have access to such evidence you should apply to the Coroner by contacting the Coroner's Court Registry on (02) 6207 1754.
Copies of reports of findings
If you are a member of the immediate family of a deceased for whom an inquest (other than an inquest into a death in custody) has been held you may request a copy of the Coroner’s findings from the Coroner. If you wish to obtain a copy of the finding please contact the Coroner's Court Registry on (02) 6207 1754 or write to, The Registrar, Coroner's Court, GPO Box 370, Canberra ACT 2601.
If you were the owner of the property damaged or destroyed by the fire the subject of an inquiry you may request a copy of the Coroner’s findings from the Coroner. If you wish to obtain a copy of the finding please contact the Coroner's Court Registry on (02) 6207 1754 or write to, The Registrar, Coroner's Court, GPO Box 370, Canberra ACT 2601.
For additional details concerning the Coroner's responsibilities, as well as answers to some commonly asked questions, please see Information About the Coroners Court and the Death of a Relative or Friend.