What Deaths are Investigated?

In Western Australia, certain deaths are required by law to be reported to the State Coroner’s Office so they can be investigated. These deaths are called “reportable deaths” and are deaths;

  • That were unexpected, unnatural or violent or that have resulted from injury;
  • That occur during an anaesthetic or as a result of an anaesthetic and is not due to natural causes;
  • That occur when the person was in care;
  • That are caused or contributed to by a member of the police force;
  • Of a person whose identity is unknown;
  • Where the cause is not known;

Generally, any death should be reported to the Coroner’s Office if the cause of death cannot be determined or if the death has occurred under suspicious circumstances. Usually, such deaths are reported by the medical profession ie a doctor.

Pending an investigation of such deaths, the deceased body is under the control of the Coroner and a post mortem may be undertaken.

Who Investigates the Death

The investigation will usually be undertaken by the police as duly authorized coronial investigators. The investigation involves;

  • Securing the area where the death occurred and preserving the evidence;
  • Searching premises;
  • Copying documents;
  • Taking statements from witnesses.

A coroner may order a post mortem examination and some action may be taken by the deceased’s next of kin if they believe a post mortem should not take place. The issue can be resolved by the Supreme Court on an application by the next of kin. Similar provision apply if the Coroner indicates an intention to exhume a body as part of an investigation.

Will there be a Hearing?

The purpose of a hearing, commonly referred to as an inquest, is to enable interested parties to be heard and make submissions and to enable findings to be made as to;

  • The identity of the deceased;
  • How the death occurred;
  • The cause of death; and
  • What entries should be made to record the death on the death certificate.

It is not unusual for a coroner to make observations relevant to community standards and expectations particularly in relation to health and safety issues. Also, if the skill, competence or conduct of a person having a trade or professional qualification is a factor in the investigation, the coroner may refer the issue to the relevant body or statutory authority having jurisdiction to take the appropriate action against that person.

The coroner does not always hold a hearing to determine the circumstances and cause of death but a hearing must take place if the death;

  • involved someone who was in care. The coroner is required by law to comment on the quality of the supervision, treatment and care of the deceased while in that care;
  • was caused by a member of the police force;

or when directed by the Attorney General or the State Coroner.

In many instances, the relevant findings will emerge from the investigation.

On occasions, a person goes missing presumed dead. If there are grounds to believe that the presumed death was or would have been a reportable death, the Coroner will hold an inquest and make findings as to how the death occurred and the cause.

A person can apply for a hearing if the death is likely to be within the jurisdiction of the coroner’s office.

If you have sufficient interest in the hearing you can be represented at the hearing by a lawyer. Apart from the deceased’s next of kin, this rule applies to other persons such as;

  • a beneficiary under a policy of life insurance applying to the deceased and the insurer;
  • any persons whose act or omission may have caused or contributed to the death;
  • the police;
  • a Union if the deceased was injured whilst at work

No inquest is held until after all criminal proceedings have been determined by an appropriate court.

Do I Have to Answer Questions at a Hearing

The evidence given by a witness at a coronial hearing can be used by the police to charge the witness with a criminal offence. A witness who has any concerns about such matters should be represented at the hearing and apply to the Coroner during the hearing, for a certificate pursuant to section 47 of the Coroners Act, certifying that the answers given by the witness cannot be admitted into evidence in any criminal proceedings against that witness.

A coroner will usually inform a person in advance and give the person an opportunity to comment, if the coroner proposes to make adverse findings of fact against that person.            

Can I Have Access to the Evidence Obtained During the Investigation?

The evidence obtained by the Coroner’s office is to be made available for inspection by the deceased’s spouse, son, daughter, parent, brother, sister or executor, unless the Coroner believes it is not desirable or practicable to do so.

For more information about the Coroners office, go here.