Information for Family and Friends
The following information has been prepared to inform bereaved relatives and friends of the reasons for the involvement of the Coroner, the processes which may occur to determine the cause of a death and their rights as a bereaved person.
The questions and answers may not cover all your questions about the coronial system of the Australian Capital Territory. However, you can always seek further information from the Coroner’s Office, (02) 6207 1754 and firstname.lastname@example.org .
NOTE: The following information is provided to the family and friends of a person who has died, or was ordinarily resident, in the Australian Capital Territory where the death is subject to a Coroner’s enquiry. Links to information regarding other state and territory forensic services and coroners courts are also available.
The Coroners Act 1997 defines ‘member of the 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.
Unlike other jurisdictions, which create a hierarchy of family members who can make decisions, the ACT recognises that all members of the immediate family have rights in relation to a deceased person. All persons who meet the legislative definition are entitled to be consulted and be kept updated about the coronial process. No one person can veto another person’s decision or right to be kept informed. The Court has processes for if there are disagreements in the family, such as to whom the body should be released, and ultimately the Coroner will make a decision if agreement cannot be reached.
Consideration of Family
At all times when exercising a function or making a decision in relation to an inquest, a Coroner must have regard to the desirability of minimising the causing of distress or offence to people who, because of their cultural attitudes or spiritual beliefs, could reasonably be expected to be distressed or offended by the exercise of the function or decision.
The Coroners Act 1997 also creates a number of rights for family members to be kept informed, to request information, to inspect the scene of death or incident scene, and to be present (or appoint a nominee) to attend a post-mortem examination. For example, under section 23 of the Coroners Act 1997, relatives or their representatives may make a request to the Coroner for:
- the viewing of the body of the deceased by a family member or their representative;
- an inspection of the scene of the death by a family member or their representative;
- an inspection of the scene of an event which, in the opinion of the Coroner, may have resulted in the death of the person;
- the member or a representative of that member to be present at any post-mortem examination conducted on the body; or
- the same or another doctor to conduct a further post-mortem examination on the body.
If the Coroner refuses to give permission for some or all of these things to occur it will be on the grounds that the Coroner believes that it would not be in the public interest or the interests of justice to do so. Advice of the Coroner's decision and an explanation for the refusal will be given to the person making the request.
What is happening to my loved one?
The loss of a loved one can be a difficult process for families and friends of the deceased. The involvement of the Coroner may cause concern and it is important that those affected are properly informed of the implications of such involvement.
Following initial contact, further contact will be through the ACT Policing Coronial Liaison Officer or the Office of the ACT Coroner located in the ACT Courts Administration.
The ACT Coroner works with a range of service providers that provide:
- support services to assist families and friends (Victim Support ACT, Community Service organisations, Medical Services);
- understand the coronial process (ACT Policing and ACT Courts and Tribunal Administration); and
- make arrangements for the care of the deceased in a sensitive way (Funeral Homes).
The ACT Policing Coronial Liaison Officers are contactable 24 hours a day every day of the year through ACT Policing on (02) 62567777.
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. The body of a deceased person cannot be released until the post mortem examination is completed and the person has been formally identified.
Can I see the body?
Apart from the formal identification, which is arranged by Police Officers, it is suggested that viewing of the body be arranged with the Funeral Home.
When can I make the Funeral arrangements?
The responsibility for making funeral arrangements lies with the executor of the estate. In the absence of an executor, the next of kin or other relatives are responsible for making arrangements. If there are no relatives, a friend of the deceased may make arrangements for the burial or cremation of the deceased.
The usual first step is for the executor, relatives or friends to make an approach to a funeral director to make arrangements for the funeral of a deceased person. The funeral director will usually make inquiries with the Coroner’s office on behalf of the family regarding the release of the deceased.
Although arrangements for a funeral may be made, burial or cremation cannot be performed until the Coroner provides permission.
Can I get assistance with funeral costs?
The ACT Government has a Funeral Program for ACT low income earners in financial hardship unable to meet the full costs of a funeral for immediate family members. Assistance is for a basic funeral and the program is administered by prescribed ACT funeral homes. Transportation costs may be considered where an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander person is culturally required to be transported to their homelands for burial.
Further information about assistance with funerals is available here.
Can I object to a post-mortem examination?
Immediate family or representatives of the deceased who do not wish an autopsy to be performed should immediately outline their concerns with the ACT Policing Coronial Liaison Officer and put their concerns in writing for the Coroner’s consideration.
The Coroner may take advice from the pathologist, including whether a less invasive form of post-mortem examination will suffice.
The authority to proceed with an autopsy rests with the Coroner. If the Coroner decides to proceed with an autopsy following a written request as outlined above, the Coroner will have determined that it is in the public interest or it is in the interests of justice to proceed.
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.
What is a post-mortem examination and how long does it take?
A pathologist may be directed by a Coroner to perform a post-mortem examination to assist in determining the manner and cause of death. Such an examination may involve external examination, investigation by CT or MRI scanning, toxicological testing and, in many cases, an autopsy. Whilst the Coroner will direct the examination considered most appropriate in the circumstances, she or he will also consider any objection to post-mortem examination raised by a deceased’s next of kin.
An autopsy is an invasive medical examination performed by a Pathologist to establish the medical cause of death. At present, about three-quarters of cases receive some form of invasive autopsy; in one-quarter of cases, the Pathologist will only undertake a visual external examination and review medical and other records as part of determining the cause of death. In certain circumstances, a range of tissue samples may need to be tested in a laboratory to assist the Pathologist determine the cause of death.
Following the autopsy, the Coroner will issue a certificate for burial or cremation and the deceased will be released to the Funeral Home nominated by the executor, family or friends.
The Pathologist’s report can take some time to finalise but is normally available to the Court within 4-12 weeks. Once the report has been received it will be considered by the Coroner and a decision made about the future conduct of the inquest: can the case be closed at this point, is further information required, is a hearing mandated or should a hearing be convened? A family representative will ordinarily be contacted by the Court at this point to advise of the Pathologist’s findings and seek their input as to the future conduct of the inquest.
The Coroner will issue a certificate indicating the cause of death once the inquest process has been completed.
Am I entitled to a copy of the post mortem examination report?
Yes, the family is ordinarily entitled to a copy of the post-mortem examination report once the Coroner has completed the inquest. As the document contains sensitive information, and some family members say they do not wish to see it, the document is not routinely sent out by the Court. Given the content and nature of the medical reports, they are generally provided through a medical practitioner who can sensitively assist relatives understand the content of the reports. To obtain a copy of a post mortem examination report, requests should be made in writing to the Coroner’s office and include the details of the medical practitioner that you wish the report to be released through.
Can I request that a hearing be held?
A relative or friend of a deceased person or other interested persons may request that a hearing be held. The Coroner will be mindful of such a request when deciding whether or not to hold a hearing. If a Coroner decides not to hold a hearing, the immediate family of the deceased will be notified.
What if the Coroner decides to hold a hearing as part of the inquest?
A Coroner must conduct a hearing for an inquest if the death is classed as a death in custody. The Coroner may dispense with a hearing in relation to other deaths if she or he is satisfied a hearing is unnecessary.
Many coronial matters are determined following review of a brief of evidence in chambers, that is the Coroner reads all material provided by an investigator, including additional material the Coroner may have requested, and makes her or his findings.
The Coroner may grant leave to a family member to appear in person or be represented by a lawyer at the hearing. The Coroner may also grant leave for other people to participate or be represented by a lawyer at the hearing.
The Coroner will be assisted by a lawyer appointed by the Coroner.
The Coroner may subpoena witnesses to give evidence at the hearing.
What notice relating to the hearing will I receive?
If a hearing is to be held, the Coroner will forward the particulars of the time and place of the hearing to a member of the immediate family of the deceased person. The Coroner will also advise any person who has given notice in writing of their intention to seek leave to appear or be represented at the inquest.
A notice advising of the date, time and place where the hearing is to be conducted will be published on the ACT Government Public Notices website () at least 14 days prior to the hearing. The hearing will generally be in public and conducted in the Courts Building in Knowles Place Canberra.
Must I be represented by a Solicitor at a hearing?
Hearings are open to the public. Any person may attend and listen to the proceedings.
Any person who, in the opinion of the Coroner, has a sufficient interest in the subject matter of the inquest may, upon application receive the leave of the Coroner to appear in person or be legally represented and examine and cross examine any witnesses relevant to the inquest.
At present, there is no government funding available to assist families with legal expenses in relation to coronial hearings. In some instances, Legal Aid ACT may be willing to assist. Alternatively, the ACT Pro Bono Clearing House may identify a lawyer willing to assist.
How do I obtain a copy of a Death Certificate?
The ACT Coroner’s Court does not issue death certificates; that is done by the Registrar of Births, Deaths and Marriages. Funeral directors will usually register a death with the ACT Registrar of Births, Deaths and Marriages, which is part of Access Canberra, on behalf of the family. Often funeral directors will make applications for death certificates on behalf of the family as part of their service. A fee will be charged for a copy of a death certificate.
Until the Coroner makes findings as to the manner and cause of death of a deceased person, a death certificate can only be issued on an interim basis and will ordinarily state that it is “awaiting coroners report”. In some circumstances at the request of the family a Coroner may make interim findings and inform the Registrar of Birth, Deaths and Marriages who may issue an interim death certificate containing details of the manner and cause of death. When the final Coroner’s Report is received by the Registrar of Birth, Deaths and Marriages establishing the cause of death, the Death Certificate will be completed and a second certificate is then issued to the original applicant with the updated information at no further cost.
An application for a copy of the death certificate may be made to the ACT Registrar of Births, Deaths and Marriages at Access Canberra.
What Support Services are available to me in the ACT?
The ACT Coronial Counselling Service, through Relationships Australia, provides free support and counselling to anyone affected by a death being investigated by the ACT Coroners Court. The ACT Coronial Counselling Service aims to support bereaved family, friends and community members through the coronial process and up to three months after the inquest process has finished.
Canberra StandBy Suicide Bereavement Response Service, managed by SupportLink, is a coordinated community crisis response service for families, friends and associates who have been bereaved through suicide. Further information here.
If the deceased was a victim of crime, a range of counselling and support services may also be through ACT Victim Support.
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.
The Court also has available an Information Kit on Dealing with a Road Death. The information included is dated and caution should be taken when relying on the contents of the document.