ACT Forensic Medicine Centre

Overview of ACT Forensic Medicine Centre

The ACT Forensic Medicine Centre in Phillip was opened on 7 September 2011 by the ACT Attorney General, Mr Simon Corbell.

The Centre cost $5.570 million and replaced the 40 year old morgue in Kingston. 

The Centre was designed in accordance with the National Pathology Accreditation Advisory Council guidelines and provides improved facilities for medical practitioners and the families of the deceased.

What does the Forensic Medicine Centre do?

The ACT Forensic Medicine Centre is managed by the ACT Law Courts and Tribunal Administration  (see Courts and Tribunals at http://www.directory.act.gov.au/ccExternal_5.1/index.html ) and provides modern facilities for pathologists and technicians who undertake forensic medical services on behalf of the ACT Coroner.   

The Centre also provides forensic medical services for areas of Southern NSW surrounding the ACT on behalf of the NSW Coroner.

Who is a Coroner?

All Magistrates in the ACT are also Coroners.   The Chief Magistrate is also the Chief Coroner.

Role of a Coroner

Coroners are required to investigate fires, disasters and, more commonly, the deaths of people in certain circumstances.  Those circumstances are detailed in s.13 of the Coroners Act 1997. The investigation is called an inquest.  As to deaths, the Coroner’s role is to determine the deceased’s identity, when and where the deceased died and the manner and cause of the deceased’s death.  In certain cases, the Coroner is able to make recommendations or comment relevant to the death.

Coroners rely upon information obtained by police, acting as Coroner’s investigators,  pathologist reports and other relevant reports or material in determining the cause of death. A Coroner may, and in some cases must, hold a hearing and call witnesses to assist in determining the matters the Coroner must find.

Role of ACT Policing

A small group of police officers perform the role of the Coroner’s Liaison Officer. A liaison officer is available at all times.  The Coronial Liaison Officers are the principal liaison and contact point for any dealings with the Coroner or any person acting on behalf of the Coroner. The police also investigate coronial deaths on behalf of, and at the direction of, the Coroner, by agreement of the Chief Police Officer.

Information for Family and Friends

NOTE: The following information is provided to the family and friends of a person who has died, or was ordinarily resident, in the Australian Capital Territory where the death is subject to a Coroner’s enquiry.   Links to information regarding other state and territory forensic services and coroners courts are also available.

What is happening to my loved one?

The loss of a loved one can be a difficult process for families and friends of the deceased. The involvement of the Coroner may cause concern and it is important that those affected are properly informed of the implications of such involvement.

The first point of contact for most family and friends, where a death will be investigated by the Coroner, will be the ACT Emergency Services Agency or ACT Policing

Following initial contact, further contact will be through the ACT Policing Coronial Liaison Officer or the Office of the ACT Coroner located at the ACT Magistrates Court. 

The ACT Coroner works with a range of service providers that provide:

  • support services to assist      families and friends (Victim Support ACT, Community Service organisations,      Medical Services);
  • understand the coronial      process (ACT Policing and ACT Law Courts and Tribunal Administration); and
  • make arrangements for the      care of the deceased in a sensitive way (Funeral Homes).  

The ACT Policing Coronial Liaison Officers are contactable 24 hours a day every day of the year through ACT Policing on (02) 62567777. 

Although the Forensic Medicine Centre undertakes work on behalf of the ACT Coroner, the families and friends of the deceased will have very limited contact with the staff of the ACT Forensic Medicine Centre.  The primary contact for family and friends is ACT Policing and the ACT Coroner’s Office.

The following information explains what happens to those people who undergo a post-mortem examination.

What is a post-mortem examination and how long does it take?

A pathologist may be directed by a Coroner to perform a post-mortem examination to assist in determining the manner and cause of death. Such an examination may involve external examination, investigation by CT or MRI scanning, toxicological testing and, in many cases, an autopsy. Whilst the Coroner will direct the examination considered most appropriate in the circumstances, she or he will also consider any objection to post-mortem examination raised by a deceased’s next of kin.

The post mortem examination will usually be undertaken within one week, or sooner if there are cultural or spiritual beliefs that the family asks the Coroner’s office to consider. 

An autopsy is an invasive medical examination performed by a Pathologist to establish the medical cause of death.  

In certain circumstances, a range of tissue samples may need to be tested in a laboratory to assist the Pathologist determine the cause of death.

Where an autopsy is undertaken, the Pathologist is required to provide a written report to the Coroner for their consideration.

Following the autopsy, the Coroner will issue a certificate for burial or cremation and the deceased will be released to the Funeral Home nominated by the executor, family or friends.

The Pathologist’s report and subsequent Coroner’s findings can take some time to finalise and may involve a hearing. The next of kin will be informed if a hearing is planned. The Coroner will issue a certificate indicating the cause of death once the inquest process has been completed.

Can I see the body?

Apart from the formal identification, which is arranged by Police Officers, it is suggested that viewing of the body be arranged with the Funeral Home.

Can I object to a post-mortem examination?

A Coroner may dispense with an autopsy where the Coroner is satisfied the manner and cause of death are sufficiently disclosed.

In making a decision to conduct an autopsy, the Coroner will consider the distress or offence to people who, because of their cultural attitudes or spiritual beliefs, could reasonably be expected to be distressed or offended by the decision to conduct an autopsy.

Immediate family or representatives of the deceased who do not wish an autopsy to be performed should immediately outline their concerns with the ACT Policing Coronial Liaison Officer and put their concerns in writing for the Coroner’s consideration. 

The Coroner may take advice from the pathologist, including whether a less invasive form of post-mortem examination will suffice.

The authority to proceed with an autopsy rests with the Coroner.  If the Coroner decides to proceed with an autopsy following a written request as outlined above, the Coroner will have determined that it is in the public interest or it is in the interests of justice to proceed.

Am I entitled to a copy of the post mortem examination report?

Once the Coroner has completed his or her enquiries, or earlier if the Coroner is satisfied that it is appropriate to do so, copies of most post mortem examination reports may be made available to the relatives of the deceased, or any other people, who in the opinion of the Coroner, have sufficient interest in the cause of death.

Given the content and nature of the medical reports, they are generally provided through a medical practitioner who can sensitively assist relatives understand the content of the reports.

To obtain a copy of a post mortem examination report, requests should be made in writing to the Coroner’s office and include the details of the medical practitioner that you wish the report to be released through.

What other rights do I have as a relative or representative of the deceased?

The rights of relatives or representatives of the deceased are outlined in the Coroners Act 1997 and are summarised below.

Under section 23 of the Coroners Act 1997, relatives or their representatives may make a request to the Coroner for: 

  • the viewing of the body of the deceased by a family member or their representative; 
  • an inspection of the scene of the death by a family member or their representative; 
  • an inspection of the scene of an event which, in the opinion of the Coroner, may have resulted in the death of the person; 
  • the member or a representative of that member to be present at any post-mortem examination conducted on the body; or
  • the same or another doctor to conduct a further post-mortem examination on the body.

If the Coroner refuses to give permission for some or all of these things to occur it will be on the grounds that the Coroner believes that it would not be in the public interest or the interests of justice to do so. Written advice of the Coroner's decision and an explanation for the refusal will be given to the person making the request.

Different rules apply if the deceased has died in custody. For further information about these circumstances, please contact the ACT Policing Coronial Liaison Officer on (02) 6256 7777.

Coroner’s Inquests

Where do I find further information on the role of the Coroner and the ACT Coroner's Court?

A Coroner is any ACT Magistrate who is provided with powers to investigate the deaths of people in certain circumstances. The investigation is called an inquest. 

Information regarding the ACT Coroners Court is available at http://www.courts.act.gov.au/magistrates/courts/coroners_court

What is an inquest and when are they required?

A Coroner’s inquest is an inquiry in which the Coroner gathers information to assist in determining the manner and cause of death.

A Coroner must hold an inquest into the manner and cause of death of a person who dies under certain circumstances. Under the Coroners Act 1997 an inquest must be conducted if the deceased:

  • is killed;
  • is found drowned;
  • dies, or is suspected to have died, a sudden death the cause of which is unknown;
  • dies under suspicious circumstances;
  • dies during or within 72 hours after, 
  • or as a result of-
    • an operation of a medical, surgical, dental or like nature;
    • an invasive medical or diagnostic procedure;
    • other than an operation or procedure prescribed by regulation to be an  operation or procedure to which this paragraph does not apply;
  • dies and a doctor has not given a certificate about the cause of death;
  • dies not having been attended by a doctor at any time within the period commencing 3 months before the death;
  • dies after an accident where the cause of death appears to be directly attributable to the accident;
  • dies, or is suspected to have died, in circumstances that, in the opinion of the Attorney-General, should be better ascertained, or
  • dies in custody.

What if the Coroner decides to hold a hearing as part of the inquest?

The Coroner may dispense with a hearing in relation to other deaths if she or he is satisfied a hearing is unnecessary.

Many coronial matters are determined following review of a brief of evidence in chambers, that is the Coroner reads all material provided by an investigator, including additional material the Coroner may have requested, and makes her or his findings.

A Coroner must conduct an hearing for an inquest if the death is classed as a death in custody or if a person died whilst under, or as a result of, an anaesthetic administered in the course of a medical, surgical or dental operation.

If an hearing is to be held into a person’s death where possible a member of the deceased immediate family will be advised of the time and place for the hearing.  A notice advising of the date, time and place where the hearing is to be conducted will be published in the Canberra Times at least 14 days prior to the hearing. The hearing will generally be in public and conducted in the Magistrates Court Building in Knowles Place Canberra. 

The Coroner may grant leave to a family member to appear in person or be represented by a lawyer at the hearing. The Coroner may also grant leave for other people to participate or be represented by a lawyer at the hearing.

The Coroner will be assisted by a lawyer appointed by the Coroner, usually a lawyer from the office of the ACT Director of Public Prosecutions, in conducting the hearing. 

The Coroner may subpoena witnesses to give evidence at the hearing.

Making Funeral Arrangements

When can I make the Funeral arrangements?

The responsibility for making funeral arrangements lies with the executor of the estate.  In the absence of an executor, the next of kin or other relatives are responsible for making arrangements. If there are no relatives, a friend of the deceased may make arrangements for the burial or cremation of the deceased.

The first step is for the executor, relatives or friends to make an approach to a funeral director to make arrangements for the funeral of a deceased person.  The funeral director will usually make inquiries with the Coroner’s office on behalf of the family regarding the release of the deceased.

Although arrangements for a funeral may be made, burial or cremation cannot be performed until the Coroner provides permission.

Can I get assistance with funeral costs?

The ACT Government has a Funeral Program for ACT low income earners in financial hardship unable to meet the full costs of a funeral for immediate family members.

Assistance is for a basic funeral and the program is administered by prescribed ACT funeral homes.

Transportation costs may be considered where an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander person is culturally required to be transported to their homelands for burial.

Further information about assistance with funerals is available at http://www.assistance.act.gov.au/health_and_dental

Death Certificates for ACT Residents

How do I obtain a copy of a Death Certificate?

Funeral Directors will usually register a death with the ACT Registrar of Births, Deaths and Marriages at the ACT Office of Regulatory Services on behalf of the family. 

In some circumstances a coroner may make interim findings and inform the Registrar of Birth, Deaths and Marriages who may issue an interim death certificate.  An application for a copy of the death certificate may be made to the ACT Registrar of Births, Deaths and Marriages at the ACT Office of Regulatory Services.  A fee will be charged for a copy of a death certificate.

When the final Coroner’s Report is received by the Office of Regulatory Services establishing the cause of death, the Death Certificate will be completed and a second certificate is then issued to the original applicant with the updated information at no further cost.

http://www.ors.act.gov.au/…

Support Services in the ACT

Services to assist with suicide

Canberra StandBy Suicide Bereavement Response Service, managed by SupportLink, is a coordinated community crisis response service for families, friends and associates who have been bereaved through suicide. Further information is available at http://www.supportlink.com.au/aboutStandby.aspx

My relative or friend was a victim of a crime

If the deceased was a victim of crime, a range of counselling and support services may be available to support you. Further information is available at www.victimsupport.act.gov.au

Links to other Coroners’ Courts

Link to other Forensic Centres