Coroners Court Lawyers
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What are Coronial Investigations?
Since 2008, the Coroners Court has been responsible for coronial investigations into reportable and reviewable deaths, deaths in custody, deaths by natural causes where the death is unexpected, and fires. Coroners are, essentially, County Court Judges who (assisted by lawyers) investigate reportable deaths. Sometimes they will find a particular person or organisation was responsible for the death. Often, they will make recommendations in relation to changes in policy to avoid similar deaths occurring.
The Coroner’s Court has particular powers to compel individuals to give evidence, often in an open court setting. This can be very stressful for the person giving evidence. They can feel defamed and attacked. Often, they don’t understand the process and don’t know that they can object to giving evidence. Often they are still dealing with their own grief.
Are Specialised Coroners Court Lawyers Necessary in Coroner’s Court Proceedings?
The short answer is, yes. The Coroner’s Court is completely different to other Court environments. It is an inquisitorial process, where the coroner is trying to uncover the truth. The coroner is assisted by lawyers, who can cross-examine witnesses and make submissions. Only lawyers experienced with coronial investigations work in this space. These include our coroners court lawyers at Galbally Parker.
The Process of Coronial Investigations
Coronial investigations can arise as a result of an unexplained death where the death has been ‘unexpected, unnatural or violent’, arising from an ‘accident or injury’ or where the death has arisen from a medical procedure. The coroners who work for the Court conduct preliminary examinations of bodies and autopsies. The Coroner may also be called to investigate a death where the identity of the deceased is unknown or, where the death occurred whilst the person was in a psychiatric facility or prison. The Coroners Act 2008 operates very differently from the criminal jurisdiction.
The Coroner’s Court will conduct inquests in relation to deaths and fires. At an inquest, the Coroner may summon a person to attend and answer questions, hold and inspect documents and order a witness to answer questions put to them. If a person wilfully fails to comply with the summons, they may be charged with contempt of court, which is punishable by a fine of up to 600 penalty units. Please visit our Infringement and Penalties page for further information on penalty units. The Coroner has investigative powers and interested parties can be represented in proceedings. Interested parties are people who have a sufficient interest in the inquest and in relation to whom it is appropriate that they be an interested party. Interested parties have the right to make submissions to the Coroner that certain witnesses be called to answer questions. Interested parties may include family members of the deceased, Police or other Public Bodies.
An inquest may occur on its own or may commence after a person has been acquitted of homicide or arson. Often a person may be acquitted of a criminal charge but found responsible for the death of another at a Coronial Inquest. The Inquest is not bound by the rules of evidence in the same way that a Trial Court is. At the conclusion of an Inquest, the Coroner may make findings or recommendations regarding the death or the circumstances of the death. The findings do not impose any penalty on any previously accused person.
It is important that those who are required to be represented at Coronial Investigations or who wish to be represented during the Inquiry be capably represented by advocates familiar with the jurisdiction. Often matters may arise during a Coronial Investigation, which may have bearing on a prospective criminal investigation and, in these circumstances, it is imperative that those involved in proceedings are fully advised of their rights. There can also be an impact on a person’s reputation, where they are implicated in a death even though criminal charges have not been laid or they have been acquitted of charges at Trial.
FAQs About the Coroners Court & Coronial Investigations
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Can I be convicted or go to prison if a coroner finds that I caused a death?
The answer is no. The coroner can make findings but the only way that a person can be convicted or go to prison is if they are convicted after a trial or plead guilty. They would need to be charged by Police and go through the criminal justice process.
Will I get charged with a criminal offence after a coronial inquest?
This is a matter for the Police. However, this is why it is important to be represented during the inquest, so that the evidence is properly examined. It is not always the case that a person will be charged, even when a Coroner has made a finding that they are likely responsible for a death. We have had many clients in this situation.
Will people know of the results of an inquest?
Most findings are public. However, there are examples where they are not published and there can be issues with locating findings, due to sensitive evidence. If you think that a suppression order should be in place, you need an experienced criminal defence lawyer who can navigate this for you and represent your interests.
Can a coroner's findings be used in a subsequent criminal trial?
While a coroner’s findings are not legally binding in criminal proceedings, they may be considered as evidence during a criminal trial. The findings can provide insights into the circumstances surrounding the death, but the prosecution must independently establish guilt based on the relevant criminal laws and evidence.
How long does a typical coronial inquest process take in Victoria?
The duration of a typical coronial inquest process in Victoria can vary significantly based on several factors. While some inquests may be relatively swift and conclude within a few weeks, others can extend for several months or even years. The following are some of the main factors that may influence the duration of a coronial inquest:
- Complexity of the Case: Inquests involving intricate circumstances, multiple parties, or complex legal issues may take longer to conclude.
- Number of Witnesses: The number of witnesses called to testify can significantly impact the duration of an inquest. If there are numerous individuals with relevant information, each may need to be examined and cross-examined, potentially extending the proceedings.
- Legal Issues and Challenges: Legal complexities, disputes, or challenges raised during the inquest can contribute to delays.
- Nature of the Death: The circumstances surrounding the death itself can influence the complexity and duration of the inquest. For example, cases involving potential criminal elements or controversial circumstances may require more thorough examination.
- Post-Mortem and Expert Reports: The time taken to conduct post-mortem examinations and gather expert reports can impact the overall duration of the inquest. Delays in obtaining necessary medical or technical assessments may extend the proceedings.
Can I appeal a coroner's findings?
In certain circumstances, it may be possible to seek a review or appeal of a coroner’s findings. However, the grounds for appeal are typically limited to legal errors or procedural irregularities. Consult with a lawyer to determine whether your case has valid grounds for appeal.
How can a coroners court lawyer assist me if I am implicated in a coronial inquest?
A lawyer can provide crucial assistance by representing your interests during the inquest, advising on legal matters, preparing submissions, and ensuring that your rights are protected. They can also guide you through any subsequent legal processes that may arise as a result of the inquest.
Are witnesses compelled to testify during a coronial inquest?
In many cases, witnesses are compelled to testify during a coronial inquest. Failure to attend or provide evidence without a reasonable excuse may result in legal consequences. However, witnesses may have the right to assert privilege or protection against self-incrimination in certain situations.
What types of deaths are typically subject to a coronial inquest in Victoria?
Coronial inquests are conducted for deaths that are sudden, unexpected, or result from unnatural causes. This includes deaths due to accidents, suicides, homicides, and deaths that occur while a person is in police custody or as a result of medical treatment or surgery.
Galbally Parker are Specialist Coroners Court Lawyers
We have represented many individuals in Coronial Inquests. These include the Inquests in relation to Phoebe Handsjuk, Jennifer Tanner, and Kath Bergamin.
If you are an interested party in a Coronial Inquest or you have received a summons to attend an Inquest, please contact our team of experienced criminal lawyers to discuss your matter.