Court proceedings – general information
Court is a formal environment and, like many other formal places, there are some general rules that must be followed. It may be useful to inform your client of the following matters if they are unfamiliar with the court environment:
- neat casual or semi-formal dress is appropriate for court
- turn your mobile phone and any other electronic devices off before you enter a courtroom
- when you enter a courtroom, bow slightly towards the coroner if the court is in session. It is also customary to bow toward the coroner when you leave
- if you address the coroner, refer to them as ‘Your Honour’
- do not talk in the back of the courtroom. All evidence is important and it can be difficult for the coroner to hear clearly when there is background noise. Unless you are giving evidence or on your feet at the time, you are always welcome to leave the courtroom to have a discussion. Legal practitioners should seek leave to be excused temporarily from the bar table if they need to leave the room while court is in session.
Court set-up / layout
- The coroner sits at the back of the room at a high table (called the bench) so that they can see everyone in court clearly.
- Directly in front of the coroner there is a table of medium height, where the administrative officer and any coroners’ officers present in court will sit and organise administrative matters.
- In front of the administrative officer there is a long table (called the bar table) where all the legal practitioners sit facing the coroner, including the counsel assisting. If there are interested persons who are asking questions or making submissions, they will also sit at this table.
- To one side of the bar table there is a witness box, which is where witnesses sit to give their evidence.
- Also at the side of the bar table there is a media box, where any members of the media may sit to take notes.
- Some courtrooms also have a dock on the other side of the bar table, where any witnesses who are currently in custody may give their evidence.
- The front of the room has rows of chairs (called the public gallery) for families, friends and the general public to use.
- Next to the door there is one chair reserved for a security guard to sit, if one is required, to ensure that everyone in the courtroom is safe at all times.
People in the court
- Media may be present if the coronial matter has attracted public attention. The coroner can order that all, or any part, of the proceedings not be published (s 57).
- Interpreters (or other communication support people)may attend if they are required by a party to the proceedings and the coroner approves the request (the coroner’s court will usually pay for the interpreter in this case).
- Members of the public may attend. Almost all coronial inquests (and preliminary court appearances, if there are any) are open to the public. This means that anyone who wants to can come to court. Section 56(2) of the Act states, ‘a coroner may order the exclusion from an inquest of any person or all persons if the coroner considers that it is in the interests of the administration of justice, national security or personal security’. If you are concerned about a particular person attending, it may be appropriate to notify the coroners’ office (if you think security will be an issue), or to advise your client to arrive late or early so they can be seated separately.
- Interested persons will often be present in court, including the families and friends of the deceased person.
- Witnesses provide evidence to the coroner, most of the time they do this by reading a statement they made to the court and answering questions about it.
- The administrative officer (or ‘court clerk’) will sit in front of the coroner and record the proceedings, swear in witnesses and ensure the smooth running of the court.
- The counsel assisting the coroner will sit at the ‘bar table’ and ask questions, make submissions and tender evidence to the coroner.
- Legal practitioners may be present to represent any interested persons / organisations to the proceedings such as relatives or statutory bodies. They sit at the ‘bar table’, question witnesses, adduce evidence and make submissions on behalf of their clients.
- The coroner sits at a high table at the back of the room, and hears all the evidence and guides the proceedings.
For more information on the roles played by different parties in coronial proceedings, refer to Chapter 2 of the Handbook Key Players in the Process.
- The court arranges security guards to attend coronial matters as and when required.
- If you (or your client) have any concerns about security, please contact the coroner’s court and be as specific as possible about the nature of your concerns.
- If it is appropriate, additional security can be arranged for particular dates or times.
- There are always additional security officers present in the court building. These officers will attend court at a moment’s notice if required and are all trained to administer First Aid.
Offences in court
- Obstruction (s 65): A person cannot hinder or obstruct a coroner, or a person acting under a coroner’s authority in exercising powers under the Act.
- Contempt (s 66): a person must not:
- insult a coroner in relation to the exercise of their functions or powers
- interrupt an inquest
- create a disturbance (or continue a disturbance) in or near a place where an inquest is being held.
- A coroner is not a compellable witness in relation to anything that came to their knowledge in the performance of their duties under the Act (s 64).
- Coroners (and persons acting under an authority given by the Act) are not liable to legal proceedings in relation to anything done under the Act, unless it was done in bad faith (s 67).
- A failure to comply with any of the Rules of the court does not render void any proceedings under the Act (rule 28).