The coroner's court and me

What do coroners do?

  • Coroners investigate deaths, fires and explosions, helped by police and a team of their own investigators.
  • The aim of coronial investigations is to gather as much information as possible, in order to allow the coroner to make the most accurate findings possible. The term “findings” refers to certain facts that the coroner discovers, which are contained in a written decision.
  • The coroner examines all the facts and makes findings at the end of their investigation that cover (if possible) exactly what happened and how it happened.
  • Because investigations are focussed on getting facts, the coroner may have to wait for medical tests and reports before they can make their findings, and sometimes this takes a long time. If you are concerned about how long an investigation is taking, you are always welcome to call the court for an update and / or an explanation.
  • Sometimes coroners hold inquests, which are public hearings where people come to court and answer questions.
  • Coroners also make recommendations aimed at preventing other deaths.
  • These recommendations can be directed to a wide range of organisations and can cover many different topics. Coronial recommendations have helped to make rules about compulsory pool fencing, wearing life jackets and drink driving, as well as many other things.

What don’t coroners do?

  • The coroner’s court is not like a criminal court, and the coroner cannot punish anyone.
  • In their findings, coroners are not permitted to say that someone has committed an indictable offence (a crime).
  • If a coroner makes recommendations telling an organisation that they should do something (for example, recommending that a hospital change its diagnostic procedures), the coroner cannot force the organisation to make the changes.
  • In some other states such as South Australia and Victoria, the law says that governments have to respond to the coroner’s recommendations, but this is not the case in Tasmania.
  • Often government departments and other organisations do change their procedures to avoid future deaths.
  • It is important that inquests are conducted in public: if a person dies when they are in the care or custody of the government (for example, if they were in prison), the people who may have contributed to the death will have to answer to the public, accounting for what they did and explaining why they did it. This process enhances accountability, transparency and government responsibility.
  • Sometimes a coroner will not be able to find the cause of death. There are instances where there is just not enough certainty for a coroner to make a definite statement about what occurred. This is very hard on families who have endured the coronial process only to be told that the coroner does not have all the answers that they seek. Families can be assured that coroners will do everything in their power to provide all the answers that they can and to help them get through this tragedy.

How involved can I be in the process?

  • You control your level of involvement. You can choose to simply wait and find out what the outcome is or you can be in regular contact with the coroner’s court and ask to be kept informed.
  • You can make applications to the coroner’s court if you want certain things to happen. For example, you can apply to access coronial documents.
  • If there is an inquest (a court hearing), you can attend the inquest in person. It is important to keep in mind that some of the information discussed in court may be upsetting for those close to the person whose death is being investigated. It is up to you to decide if you want to come along. Unless you are a witness giving your evidence, you are able to leave at any time.
  • If you are the senior next of kin, you may be more involved in the process. If you would like more information on the role of the senior next of kin, please go to the next section of the guide.

Who / what is the senior next of kin?

The senior next of kin is the person that the coroner’s court will usually contact with information and questions about the deceased person. Other family members and friends can also ask to be kept updated.

The senior next of kin is the first available person on this list:

  1. The current spouse (which includes the other party to a ‘significant relationship’ according to the definition in the Relationships Act 2003)
  2. A son or daughter who is at least 18 years of age
  3. A person in a caring relationship (according to s 5 of the Relationships Act 2003)
  4. A parent
  5. A brother or sister who is at least 18 years of age
  6. An executor of the will
  7. A personal representative.

Note: If the deceased person is Aboriginal, the senior next of kin can also be an ‘appropriate person’ according to the customs and tradition of the community or group to which the person belonged.

  • If you are not sure if you are the senior next of kin, please contact the coroner’s court and they will tell you.
  • There are four things the senior next of kin has a right to do, which no one else does. In all other ways, being the senior next of kin is just like being a family member who is an ‘interested person’.
  • The only rights which are exclusive to the senior next of kin under the Act are the rights to:
    • object to an autopsy
    • object to exhumation
    • be notified of the coroner’s decision not to hold an inquest
    • request the coroner not hold an inquest into a workplace death.
  • The coroner’s decision about who is senior next of kin only applies to the coroner’s court. It doesn’t give that person any legal rights or special status in any other legal proceedings to do with the will, property or anything else.

If you are the senior next of kin:

  • The coroner’s court will contact you when the deceased person is ready to be collected by a funeral director. The mortuary staff at the hospital will contact the funeral director as well.
  • Each time the investigation reaches the point where the senior next of kin has a right to do something, the coroner’s court will notify you.
  • If the coroner decides to hold an inquest, the coroner’s court will write to you and tell you when and where the inquest will be held. They will also tell you the date, time and location of any case management conferences that are being held to organise the inquest.
    • If you have any questions about the inquest, a case management conference is a good place to discuss them.
    • You are allowed to ask questions at the inquest or have a lawyer do this for you.
    • If you have any questions about the inquest process, please contact the coroner’s court.
  • The coroner’s court will send you a copy of the findings once they are prepared.
  • The coroner’s court may ask you to provide information such as details about the circumstances of the death or medical records for the deceased person.

What if I don’t want to be senior next of kin?

You can “delegate” your responsibilities as senior next of kin by asking another person to do it for you. You should send the court a ‘statutory declaration’ saying this is what you want, signed both by yourself and by the person you choose. Statutory declaration forms can be found on the Magistrates Court web site, under Forms or collected from the Magistrates Court. Coroner’s court and Magistrates Court staff can assist you to fill out this form.

What if I think I should be senior next of kin but I’m not?

You can apply to the coroner if you think you should be the senior next of kin. It is important to remember that there are only four rights that the senior next of kin has that other interested persons don’t (refer to the list above). To apply, contact the coroner’s court. You will be given the opportunity to give the coroner any information you have about why you are the correct senior next of kin. If the investigation is just beginning and you want to exercise the right to object to the autopsy, you need to contact the coroner’s court right away by telephone. If it is after hours, you can get in touch with police by calling 131 444. Police will pass on any messages to the coroners’ associates; autopsies do not happen on the weekend.

Once the coroner has your information, they will get information from anyone else who says they are the senior next of kin. The coroner will then decide who is the correct senior next of kin. If you don’t agree with the coroner’s decision you should get legal advice as you may want to apply to the Supreme Court to have the decision reviewed.

There is more information on the role of the senior next of kin in the Tasmanian Coronial Practice Handbook, under Key Players in the Process: Senior Next of Kin.

There is more information on how to make an application to the coroner’s court or the Supreme Court in the Tasmanian Coronial Practice Handbook, under Key Elements in the Process: Applications.

What is an autopsy?

An autopsy is when a specialist doctor (a pathologist) carefully examines the internal parts of a deceased person’s body. If a pathologist takes a blood or other sample from a deceased person, this is also an autopsy. Other procedures such as physically examining a deceased person, reading their medical records and taking photographs of them are not a part of the autopsy.

The aim of any autopsy is to identify the medical cause of death and anything that might have contributed to death. Autopsies can provide a lot of information that cannot be gathered in any other way. All autopsies are conducted in a respectful and dignified manner.

The coroner will decide if an autopsy is necessary. If they make an order, the autopsy will usually happen within 48 hours. Autopsies do not happen on the weekend. If you are the senior next of kin and you don’t want an autopsy to happen (if you “object”), tell the attending police or the coroner’s court right away. After business hours you can phone 131 444 to notify a police officer of your objection.

If you object, the coroners’ associates will talk to you about the different procedures the pathologist might do so you can explain exactly which procedures you object to. When there is an objection to autopsy, it is taken very seriously. The coroner will consider whether they can get all the information they require without an autopsy. The coroner may decide that an autopsy is not required, that only some procedures are necessary or that a full autopsy must happen.

If you object and the coroner decides that an autopsy is required, the coroners’ office will give you a notice. You can then apply to the Supreme Court within 48 hours for an order that the autopsy not go ahead.

Do I need a lawyer?

  • It is always up to you whether you seek legal advice.
  • The coroner’s court is designed to be more accessible than criminal courts, so you may find that you do not need a lawyer.

If you think that you might want or need a lawyer to:

  • help you understand the proceedings
  • assist with paperwork
  • speak for you in court (at an inquest)
  • answer legal questions

you can seek advice on this from a Community Legal Service, Legal Aid, or from a private lawyer or law firm (contact details are listed in A Guide for Families and Friends: Who can help? - Legal help). These people can give you a better idea whether you will need a lawyer or not, and help you to contact one if you want.

When will we be able to have the funeral?

  • Until the coroner signs a ‘Certificate of Burial’ authorising the release of the deceased person, they remain in the custody of the coroner (ss 31 & 32).
  • This is just to make sure that the coroner can gather all the information they need to make the most accurate findings about how the person died.
  • We understand that it is upsetting for families and friends to have to wait to be able to collect their loved one.
  • Because of this, the law says that the coroner must release the deceased person’s body ‘as soon as reasonably possible’.
  • Every effort will be made to ensure that any investigations are carried out quickly and that your loved one is returned for burial / cremation as soon as they can be.

Should I go to the inquest?

  • It is always up to you whether you go to the inquest, unless you are sent as summons to be a witness.
  • Some people find attending the inquest very helpful. They can hear all the evidence and better understand for themselves the time and effort that has gone into helping to discover the truth about what happened. The inquest can help them to get answers if they have a lot of questions.
  • Other people may find attending the inquest upsetting and the level of detail in the evidence to much to bear.
  • If you need help making a decision about whether to attend the inquest, then talk it over with friends and family members, coronial court staff, or perhaps a counsellor to help you to decide (refer to A Guide for Families and Friends: Who can help?).
  • Going to a different inquest may help you to understand the process and know what to expect.

I have decided to go to the inquest, what do I need to know?

It can be upsetting to attend an inquest where you will be faced with detailed evidence about the death of someone close to you. You can take a support person with you and you can leave at any time (unless you are giving evidence). Your support person can be a friend or family member, or a professional (refer to A Guide for Families and Friends: Who can help?).

Make sure you allow extra time to get to court just in case and ask the court staff which room the inquest will be held in so you know where to go. Once you get to court, you will need to go through a metal detector and security check, and then you can go to the courtroom.

If you require an interpreter to assist you or your family at the inquest, please tell the staff at the coroner’s court at least a couple of weeks in advance. If the coroner approves the use of an interpreter, the court will pay for an interpreter to attend or be present on the phone. The Magistrates Court (and the coroner’s court) is fully wheelchair accessible. If you need any extra help during the inquest process, please contact the coroner’s court and let us know.

What to bring:

  • any documents you have been asked to provide
  • your statement (if you are a witness) - this will also be on the coroner’s file, so contact the coroners’ office if you do not have a copy and they can send it to you or give it to you in court
  • a list of questions you want to ask (if you are speaking at the inquest)
  • a support person
  • pen and paper (to write down anything that you might want to remember)
  • tissues
  • something to eat or money for lunch (you cannot take your food and drink into a courtroom, so please be aware of this when you plan your lunch)
  • money for parking if you are driving (it may be good to arrange to call someone to pick you up if you are worried the proceedings will be upsetting for you)
  • a book, newspaper or something else non-electronic to do when you are waiting.

During the inquest, the coroner will explain the proceedings and check with close family members about any questions they may have.

There is more information about court proceedings (such as the layout of courtrooms and court etiquette) in the Tasmanian Coronial Practice Handbook, under Key Elements in the Process: Court proceedings – general information.

There is more information on inquests (such as what an inquest is and how inquests are held) in the Tasmanian Coronial Practice Handbook, under Key Elements in the Process: Inquests.

I’m a witness at the inquest, what does this mean?

Witnesses are people who attend formal court hearings and tell the court anything that they know that is relevant to the hearing. A person will ask you a question and you then answer them, and this process is known as ‘giving evidence’. In most cases, the questions will be based on written statements that you have already made to police. Nothing new will be discussed, but you might be asked to give more details about the events in your statement.

Giving evidence in court can be stressful. The courtroom and building are very formal and may be an unfamiliar environment. The subject matter of an inquest (usually a sudden death) is upsetting. No one expects you to be relaxed and at your best. If you need a minute to have a breath or a glass of water, or if you need a tissue, please say something. It is our role to make the experience of giving evidence as easy for you as we can.

As a witness, you will provide valuable information to help the coroner to make the most accurate and useful findings that they can. Your help is greatly appreciated.

If you are a person with complex communication needs, please contact the coroners’ office for assistance. There is also more information on some of the ways the court can accommodate your needs in the Tasmanian Coronial Practice Handbook, under Key Players in the Process: Witnesses – witnesses with disability and Key Players in the Process: Witnesses – witnesses with complex communication needs. People with complex communication needs can include people with disability, people whose first language is not English, people under the age of 18 and people suffering from a mental illness.

Before court

  • First you will be sent a summons, which is a document that requires you to come to court and ‘give evidence’ on the date and time specified. If someone other than the coroner is calling you to give evidence, then you may be simply asked to attend instead of being sent a summons.
  • If you are sent a summons and you cannot come to court on that day, you must contact the coroner’s court as soon as possible to explain - this is because you are legally required to come to court. It is possible for the coroner to issue a warrant for people who are summonsed and do not attend court, and if this happens they can be arrested and taken to court.
  • If you are called as a witness, you may be recognised by the court as an ‘interested person’. If you are an interested person, then you may ask a lawyer to represent you in court. If you are not sure whether you are an interested person, you can call the coroner’s court to ask them if you are an interested person, or to make an application to be an interested person.
  • If coming to court will cost you money in lost wages or salary, travel or accommodation please contact the coroner’s court who can assist you in making a claim for expenses.
  • If you have any special needs attending court or need assistance (such as an interpreter, or use of the ‘hearing loop’ which is a court hearing aid) then please contact the coroner’s court and let them know as soon as possible. All Magistrates Courts in Tasmania are wheelchair accessible.
  • You can bring a support person to court with you (they can be a friend, family member or a professional – go to A Guide for Families and Friends: Who can help?).

At court

  • You are welcome to wait in the courtroom or outside the courtroom until you are called to give your oral evidence. If you choose to wait outside the courtroom, make sure that the counsel assisting knows that you are there.
  • If you have a support person, they can wait with you and then sit in the back of the court while you are giving your evidence.
  • You will be called into court by name and directed to the ‘witness box’, where you can sit and give your evidence. It is customary to give a small bow / nod to the coroner when you enter the courtroom.
  • You will be asked to take an affirmation or swear an oath on the Bible (the Qur’an and Torah are also available for oaths if the request is made to the court clerk in advance). Both the affirmation and the oath are promises to tell the truth. An oath is religious, where you swear by God to tell the truth. An affirmation is non-religious and you “affirm” that you will tell the truth.
  • Your promise to tell the truth is a serious undertaking. It is possible for criminal charges to be laid against you if you are found to have lied in court.
  • You will be asked questions about your statement/s by the counsel assisting, the coroner, lawyers and perhaps also by interested persons.
  • Answer clearly and without rushing, to the best of your knowledge and memory. The coroner will probably make notes as you talk.
  • If you speak to the coroner directly, please refer to them as ‘Your Honour’.
  • If you do not know or remember something, it is fine to say you do not know or remember.
  • You may have been asked to bring items or documents with you, or to supply them in advance. These items or documents may be shown to you during your evidence so that you can tell the court what they are and answer any questions about them.
  • If all your evidence cannot be given in one sitting, you may be asked to return to finish it at a particular time on the same day, or on another day or days.

After court

  • Once you have finished giving your evidence, you are allowed to stay in the courtroom and listen to the proceedings if you like.
  • You are welcome to leave as soon as you have given your evidence if you prefer.
  • Please let the coroner’s court know if you would like to be told when the findings are ready.
  • Evidence you give in an inquest cannot be used against you later in a criminal / civil proceeding, except if you are prosecuted for perjury (perjury is lying when you give your evidence, Act s 54).

If you want more information on the risks and possible consequences of giving evidence at an inquest, please seek legal advice. For a list of legal services, please go to A Guide for Families and Friends: Who can help? - Legal help.

How long will this take?

Coronial investigations take months or sometimes years to be finalised. The coroner has to wait for expert reports to be written, medical tests to be conducted and all the evidence to be gathered. The more complex the matter is, the longer the investigation will take and the more likely it is that there will be an inquest. In a case where there is an inquest, witnesses must be arranged, court time has to be allocated and lawyers need time to look at all the evidence.

We understand that waiting is very hard for families and friends, especially when you do not know what happened to your loved one or cannot find out if their death could have been avoided. The coroner will work hard to get answers for you as soon as they are able. The coroner cannot issue any ‘preliminary’ or ‘draft’ reports. They can only hand down their findings once they have had time to consider all the evidence and make sure that everything has been done.

Equity and diversity

The coroner’s court is committed to providing equal access to justice to all members of society. We are committed to providing a service free from discrimination, which respects all people equally regardless of age, sex, sexuality, gender identity, ethnicity, religious belief or any other social or personal attribute. If there is something we can do to help you participate equally in the coronial process, please let us know.

The coroner’s court is a division of the Magistrates Court of Tasmania, which is in turn a part of the Department of Justice of the Tasmanian Government. The Magistrates Court ‘Code of Ethics of the Non-judicial Officers of the Magistrates Court of Tasmania’ covers all our professional conduct and requires impartiality, personal integrity and prohibits harassment (including of a sexual, verbal, physical or psychological nature).

For more information, refer to the Code of Ethics of the Non-judicial Officers of the Magistrates Court of Tasmania (which is available on the Magistrates Court web site) and State Service Code of Conduct for Tasmania (which is available on the Tasmanian Legislation web site).

Feedback

If you wish to provide positive or negative feedback on the coroner’s court please send it to us at Coroners.Hbt@justice.tas.gov.au, or write us a letter or call us. You can also send your feedback to the Department of Justice or complain to the Ombudsman if you prefer.