Page 3190 - Week 10 - Wednesday, 24 August 2005

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treat them as sub-branches of public service departments”. In that discussion the court added:

In any other circumstances, a finding that such an event could give rise to an apprehension of bias might be inescapable.

It concluded, however, that in this case any inference that could be drawn from the event was not sufficiently weighty as to warrant a finding of bias. In neither instance were these comments particularly relevant to or damning of the actions of the Attorney-General.

I would, however, like to draw the Attorney-General’s and the Assembly’s attention to these comments as I believe they reflect systemic issues within our agencies. I would also add, to draw again on Dan Stubbs’s analysis, that the separation of powers between the administration and the parliament is as fragile as that between administration and justice and that it is at the mundane level of business that the blurring of the line is most insidious and, in the end, most dangerous. If anything constructive is to come out of this deadlocked debate, it needs to be a profound examination of the culture of our services and institutions and the establishment of a project to clean up separation of roles and responsibilities, before we expand the Assembly perhaps and indeed offer an argument for its expansion.

The Supreme Court’s decision, of course, also included quite an extensive discussion of the jurisdiction of the coroner. Without revisiting too much of my contribution to last week’s debate, that discussion strengthens the argument for some investigation into the best way to deal with such wide-ranging issues in the future, including a review of the provisions of the Coroners Act itself.

This raises a question of court resources and expertise. I reiterate my conviction that a dedicated coroners court or more space in the court calendar made available for coroners to conduct their inquests would assist us all. It is often said that people involved in these inquests need closure and that stretching out an inquiry over three, four or more years is insufferable. Of course, this particular inquest is not longer than many. There are numerous stories around this town. The Bender family springs to mind, the families and friends having the detail of their loss and the events leading up to it strung out for years.

Much is made of the need for closure. The implication is somehow that people keep themselves distressed and unresolved until the inquest comes back with the right decision for them. The reality is the reverse. It is the process of the inquest that reopens and re-exposes the pain and the distress associated with the events; and the closure is about the process being concluded and, therefore, allowing people to get on with their lives. It is important, then, that this government work with the courts to ensure a faster and more resilient inquest process.

One aspect of all these tortuous inquests is that they involve individuals with legal counsel. Often they are senior government officers, concerned that they will be found responsible for the outcome, whose lives and reputations will also be destroyed or at the very least badly affected. It creates an environment of intense legal contest and scrutiny.

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