Page 4111 - Week 10 - Tuesday, 20 September 2011

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Coroners Amendment Bill 2011

Debate resumed from 23 June 2011, on motion by Mr Corbell:

That this bill be agreed to in principle.

MRS DUNNE (Ginninderra) (5.48): The Canberra Liberals will support this bill, which seeks to reform the coronial system in the ACT. In doing so, the bill adds an objects clause and guidance for meeting the objects. This is a useful and important element for legislative drafting, because it provides an overview of the intentions of the legislature.

Importantly, the objects of this bill establish that the Corner’s Court takes an inquisitorial and not an adversarial approach to inquests and inquiries. They also elevate the importance of the public having an understanding of the functions of the Coroner’s Court.

The bill also clarifies the criteria for appointment of counsel assisting, ensuring that counsel are suitably qualified and do not have an actual or perceived conflict of interest. The act already requires a coroner to appoint counsel assisting for inquests involving deaths in custody. The bill gives the coroner the option when it comes to other matters of inquest or inquiry.

Another amendment creates new procedures for a coroner, including power to give directions as to practice or procedures not otherwise set down in the law or by the Chief Coroner for inquests, inquiries and hearings and reporting to the Attorney-General. It is worth noting that the Attorney-General will be required to table such reports, along with the government’s response, in the Assembly within six months.

A significant amendment that this bill introduces is to allow inquests and inquiries to proceed to a finding of “basic facts”—for example, establishing the cause of death of a person, the person’s identity and the date and place of death. This is so even when, in the process, the coroner finds indictable offence evidence not directly connected with the coronial process.

Whilst the drafting is somewhat convoluted, and probably necessary so because this is a complex issue, this will help expedite things for the family of the deceased rather than stringing out the coronial inquest until a criminal matter has run its course. It is important to note, however, that a stay of inquest will continue to arise if the indictable offence that is found in the course of the inquest relates directly to the death that is the subject of the inquest.

Finally, the bill creates procedures for keeping informed the family of deceased persons whose death is the subject of an inquest. This again is an important amendment. It goes back to one of the new objects introduced in the bill and ensures that families, while they go through a particularly traumatic time, are kept informed as to the progress of the inquest into the death of a loved one.

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