Further changes to Coronial System announced

  • Chester Borrows

Further improvements to make the coronial system clearer and easier for families were announced today by Courts Minister Chester Borrows.

The changes make it easier for the public to find out how coroners are appointed and how possible conflicts of interest are managed, improve sensitivity in the way families are consulted if tissue samples need to be retained following a post-mortem examination, and clarify when deaths of New Zealanders overseas need to be reported to a New Zealand coroner.

“We want families to be confident in the coronial process. Understanding how coroners are appointed and that they are impartial in how they carry out their duties is part of this,” says Mr Borrows. 

“I am proposing that the Attorney-General will be responsible for publishing information on the coronial appointment process and that the Chief Coroner will produce guidance on how coroners manage conflicts of interest.”

New processes were introduced in the Coroners Act 2006 to allow families to request that tissue samples taken as part of a post-mortem examination are returned once they are no longer required.  However, the Act only allows families five working days to make a decision. 

“Some families need more time to think through whether they want samples returned at the end of the process,” says Mr Borrows.

“The Act needs more flexibility to take account of their different needs, such as allowing them to talk to a pathologist about what will happen to the samples.  However, the Act will continue to ensure that families are informed when samples are retained."

At present there is some uncertainty about when overseas deaths need to be reported to a New Zealand coroner. 

Revisions to the Act will make it clear that the reporting of overseas deaths is voluntary.  If there are concerns about the death, and there has been insufficient investigation overseas, the person’s family or friends may report the death to the Police and ask for a New Zealand coroner to investigate the death. 

“In many cases, the circumstances of the death are straight forward and may have already been investigated overseas,” Mr Borrows says. “Unless the family has real concerns there is usually no need to investigate further.” 

The reforms are part of a targeted review of the Coroners Act 2006 commenced last year to improve public safety, reduce unnecessary deaths, and speed up the process to make things easier on families.

Changes announced previously include improving coroners’ recommendations by making their scope more focused, strengthening the role of the Chief Coroner to improve timeliness and consistency in the system, and reducing effort spent on cases where a coronial investigation or inquest is unnecessary.

The proposed changes will be made through a Bill amending the Coroners Act 2006 to be introduced to Parliament next year. This will go through a select committee process, including public submissions before it is passed into law.

Coronial services are currently provided by a Chief Coroner, 16 permanent coroners and support staff. In 2012/13, 5,512 deaths were reported to the coroner, or around 18% of all deaths. Of these, 3,098 deaths were accepted as coronial cases, 1,326 inquiries were opened and 198 public coronial inquests were scheduled.

More information can be found on www.justice.govt.nz.