The Coroner’s Court plays a pivotal role in the Victorian justice system. Coroners are judicial officers who are responsible for the independent investigation of all reportable deaths and fires. Each year, Victoria’s coroners independently investigate roughly 6,500 deaths and fires. In an investigation into a death, the coroner must determine the identity of the deceased person, their cause of death and in some cases the circumstances surrounding their death. Coroners are empowered by the Coroners Act 2008 (Vic). This legislation contains all relevant provisions regarding a coroner’s ability to conduct investigations and inquests.

Coronial Investigations

The first step in a coronial matter is the investigation stage. Deaths a coroner will typically investigate include:

  • Unexpected, unnatural or violent deaths (including homicides and suicides);
  • When the identity of the deceased is unknown;
  • When the cause of death is unknown; and
  • When a person who was in care or custody (such as in a prison or health facility) dies.

Coroners usually work collaboratively with Victoria Police and the Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine to conduct their investigations. Firstly, police will gather initial information and evidence regarding the death to provide to the coroner. Following this, a forensic pathologist from the Victorian Institute will conduct an examination of the deceased.  These examinations usually include:

  • Radiological scans (such as a CT scan);
  • Photographs;
  • Visual examination or post-mortem autopsy;
  • Examination of bodily fluid (saliva, urine, blood and mucus); and
  • Examination of external bodily samples (swabs from wounds, hair samples, skin samples)

These examinations are done in order to determine the cause of death. After these examinations are concluded, the forensic pathologist will provide a Medical Examination Report to the coroner. Subsequently, once all of the information and evidence is gathered, the coroner will determine whether the death requires further investigation or whether the death was the result of natural causes. Some investigations may result in an inquest, whilst others may only result in a finding.

Coronial Inquests

A coronial inquest is a public hearing into a death or fire. It is not a trial, and the coroner will not make findings of guilt. Inquests are not held for all investigations. In fact, only 5% of all investigations result in public hearings. Coroners are empowered by section 52 of the Coroners Act to conduct an inquest in circumstances where the coroner suspects that the death was the result of a homicide, or in circumstances where the deceased died in custody or care, or where the identity of the deceased is unknown. 

Who Else is Involved in a Coronial Inquest?

Each coroner has a team of lawyers and registrars. At the inquest, the coroner will be assisted by a coroners assistant (typically an in-house solicitor), or by a barrister in the role of ‘Counsel Assisting’. These lawyers may be responsible for examining witnesses and making submissions to the coroner, which is an important role in the fact-finding exercise. Furthermore, individuals or organisations with an interest in the matter and who have registered as an interested party will often be represented at the hearing by a solicitor or barrister. This may include police officers responsible for the conduct of the investigation, individuals implicated in the death or fire, or individuals directly associated with the deceased (such as family).

Powers of the Coroner

Coronial inquests are different to criminal trials as they are inquisitorial in nature. This means that the coroner can directly question witnesses (often done by the counsel assisting). This aligns with their primary goal of determining the cause of death or fire. Accordingly, the coroner conducting the inquest has extensive powers per section 55 of the Act. Under this section, the coroner may summon a person to attend as a witness or to produce any document or other materials; inspect, copy, and hold documents from a witness and they may order a witness to answer questions. Additionally, unlike a criminal trial, coroners are not bound by the rules of evidence when conducting their inquest (section 62). This means that the laws contained in the Evidence Act do not apply. This gives the coroner extensive powers in conducting their inquest, as it allows them to consider evidence that may be considered inadmissible in a criminal trial (such as hearsay evidence, opinion evidence and potentially prejudicial or illegally obtained evidence)

Being called as a witness

Coroners have the power to call for witnesses per section 55 of the Act. Witnesses may include individuals who are suspected as having been involved in the death or fire to some extent.

Witnesses called to give evidence at an inquest may object to giving evidence on the basis that doing so would lead to self-incrimination (section 57). If an objection is made, the witness will be required to make submissions (typically done through their lawyer) to the coroner as to why they should be excused from giving evidence. The coroner must then decide if there are reasonable grounds for the objection. If the coroner determines that there are reasonable grounds, then the coroner may excuse the witness from giving evidence or may alternatively provide the witness with a certificate shielding them from criminal liability if they willingly give evidence. However, if the coroner determines that there are no grounds for an objection then they will require the witness to give evidence. This will be the case where the coroner determines that the evidence does not tend to prove that the witness has committed a crime and that it is in the interests of justice for the witness to give evidence (s57(4)). 

Whilst a coroner cannot make a finding of guilt, nor prosecute a witness for a potential crime (such as murder or homicide), they may refer implicated witnesses to the Director of Public Prosecutions for further investigation or prosecution. Accordingly, the giving of evidence at a coronial investigation can determine whether a witness to the death is criminally charged. Thus, if called as a witness, it is highly important to obtain legal advice and representation.

Failure to Give Evidence

It should be also noted that should a witness who has been summoned by the coroner fail to attend the hearing or produce requested documents, that the coroner is empowered to issue an arrest warrant (section 59 of the Act). Moreover, failures in assisting with the inquest, or misbehavior as a witness may result with the witness being charged with contempt of court (section 103). 

Galbally Parker are Specialist Coroners Court Lawyers

The team at Galbally Parker has 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 coroners court lawyers to discuss your matter.