10 January 2021

Chief Magistrate reiterates calls for dedicated ACT coroner

| Dominic Giannini
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ACT Law Courts Photo: Michelle Kroll Region Media

ACT Law Courts Photo: Michelle Kroll Region Media.

Chief Magistrate Lorraine Walker has reiterated calls for a dedicated coroner in the ACT to “professionalise the jurisdiction and to ensure consistency and efficiency in dealing with matters”.

Ms Walker called for more resourcing and an end to the current ad hoc system where the coronial process is undertaken by a seconded magistrate.

The ACT Coroners Court currently sits within the ACT Magistrates Court. It holds inquests into deaths resulting from an accident, deaths in unknown circumstances, deaths in custody, and certain healthcare-related deaths.

The coroner also investigates the cause or origin of some fires.

“Every magistrate retained an active coronial caseload in 2019-20, but that caseload was discharged as a secondary priority when duties as a magistrate commanded more immediate attention,” Ms Walker wrote in the most recent annual report.

“The ACT Coroner’s Court received no allocated resourcing for the performance of judicial coronial functions.

“My coronial colleagues and the staff of the Court do the best they can within the time available to them.”

There was a 10 per cent increase in cases lodged in 2019-20 but the number of pending cases dropped by 11 per cent.

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“In other words, the Court finalised a higher number of cases than the number of cases lodged with the Court during the same period,” the Chief Magistrate said.

There remained 136 incidents to be finalised at the end of 2019-20, including 47 pending for more than two years and 20 that have been pending for between one and two years.

Both are less than cases pending at the end of the previous reporting period in 2018-29.

Attorney-General Shane Rattenbury said the government would review whether a dedicated coroner was needed given the circumstances. There had been some uncertainty about the need for a coroner and how well the current system was working.

Shane rattenbury

Attorney-General Shane Rattenbury said the Government would be reviewing whether a dedicated coroner was needed in the ACT. Photo: Michelle Kroll.

“Having a dedicated coroner, rather than magistrates who act as coroner on a rotating basis, would enable that person to be more focused, develop expertise and could help reduce delays in inquiries,” he said.

“It may also assist in ensuring that findings and recommendations relating to community safety are more consistent, and allow for more systemic consideration of accumulated recommendations over time.”

Mr Rattenbury said he had a preliminary discussion with the Chief Magistrate before Christmas and needed to have a more detailed discussion with her ahead of any decision.

Discussions will also include further resourcing and how the coronial process is conducted in the Territory.

“We also want to explore changes to the coronal system that could make it more restorative and therapeutic,” he said.

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“There is a view from some people who have been through the coronial system that it is very formal, it can really feel like a combative process and families feel as if the voice of their loved ones does not necessarily get representation.

“Coronial processes can sometimes take years, and be quite formal, and we know loved ones and families want more than just a report with recommendations. Restorative processes could help to provide greater transparency, justice and healing for grieving families and the community.”

Resources have not been allocated for a coroner in the forthcoming ACT Budget, which will be delivered in February and was finalised before Christmas. However, Mr Rattenbury said it would form a part of discussions for the second budget this year, scheduled for August.

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