How to challenge a coroner's finding at an inquest

Introduction

An inquest is an inquiry designed to establish when and how a person died. It is held in the Coroner's Court. Inquests are not normally held if the circumstances and cause of death are clear – for example, a post-mortem may reveal that the cause of death was natural. For general information on the coroner, see How to: The role and duties of the coroner.

When must an inquest be held?

The CORONERS ACT 1988 requires inquests to be held in the following situations:

  • an apparent suicide
  • death in prison or Police custody
  • death in an institution such as a psychiatric hospital or children's home

Inquests are generally open to the public and media

Where an inquest is ordered by a coroner it must be held in a forum open to the public and media. This is usually a courthouse; however, it may be in an office or some other venue.

In the case of a suicide the media are authorised to publish only the name, address and occupation of the person and the fact that an inquest was held with the cause of death being determined as self-inflicted. Any further details can be published only with the coroner's authority.

The coroner has some limited powers to exclude people from the whole or part of an inquest if satisfied that this is in the interests of justice, decency or public order. Similarly, the coroner has power to prohibit the publication of evidence given at any inquest.

Evidence and witnesses at inquests

At an inquest the coroner has power to hear evidence to establish the identity of the deceased and to establish when and how the person died. A coroner is entitled to summons witnesses to attend the inquest.

The coroner's findings

Issues as to criminal or civil liability are not decided in the Coroner's Court. The coroner may however make recommendations to appropriate authorities in order to minimise the chances of further deaths occurring in the same way as the death that is the subject of the inquest.

If a coroner intends to make any adverse comments about a deceased person then the coroner must first inform the deceased's immediate family. Similarly, if the coroner is to make any adverse comment about a living person, the coroner must first inform that person.

Can I get a copy of the coroner's findings?

After the inquest is held a copy of the inquest proceedings can be obtained from:

  • The Coronial Services Officer
    Ministry of Justice
    PO Box 5094
    Wellington

You are entitled to obtain a copy of the coroner's findings, any recommendations made by the coroner, and any written evidence presented at the inquest. It should be noted that the coroner may order that certain material not be published, in which case copies of this material will not be released.

What can I do if I want to dispute the coroner's decision?

If you do not agree with the decision of a coroner the following procedures are available:

  • If you disagree with a coroner's decision to prohibit publication of evidence given at an inquest, you can apply to a District Court judge to vary the coroner's order.
  • If you disagree with a coroner's decision not to order a post-mortem examination or not to hold an inquest, or if you feel an aspect of an inquest was unfair or irregular, you may approach the Solicitor-General at the Crown Law Office, PO Box 5012, Wellington.

Powers of Solicitor-General and High Court to order inquest or second inquest

If new facts have been discovered since the coroner decided not to hold an inquest or since an inquest was held, the Solicitor-General may order that an inquest or a further inquest be held.

In other cases the Solicitor-General can apply to the High Court for an order that an inquest or further inquest be held. The High Court can order an inquest if satisfied that it is necessary or desirable to do so. If an inquest has already been held into the death, the High Court may order another inquest on the grounds that there has been fraud, that evidence was rejected, that there was some irregularity in the proceedings, that new facts have been discovered, or for any other sufficient reason.

Where a second inquest is to be ordered it is usual for this to be held by a different coroner. The findings of the second inquest will replace those delivered from the first.

The Solicitor-General may also apply to the High Court for an order that a post-mortem examination be conducted in cases where a coroner has failed or refused to order one.

Challenging a coroner's decision through "judicial review"

In addition to these avenues for dispute, all decisions of coroners are subject to judicial review by the High Court. In general, an action in judicial review cannot review the merits of the particular decision you are challenging, and is confined to the process by which the decision was made.

Cautionary notes
  • If you are summonsed to appear as a witness at an inquest it is an offence to fail to appear. Witnesses are questioned under oath as with normal court proceedings. A Coroner's Court differs in that people whom the coroner considers have an interest in the inquest, such as relatives, may also question witnesses, either personally or through a lawyer.
  • Interested people can apply to the coroner for permission to call their own witnesses at an inquest.
  • If you have a particular interest in an inquest, you should consult a lawyer for advice on your rights. This could include a right to be represented at the inquest and to question witnesses.


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