About the Coroner's Court
The Coroner's Court was established by the Coroners Act 1956 and continues in existence under the Coroners Act 1997. The role of the Coroner's Court is to conduct inquests into deaths and inquiries into fires and disasters.
The ACT Coroner's Court is located within the ACT Magistrates Court building and sits whenever it holds an inquest into the manner and cause of a death or an inquiry into the cause and origin of a fire. Enquiries should be directed to Magistrates Court counter staff who will be able to provide information as to the time and date of the inquest as well as the courtroom in which the matter is being heard.
Magistrates are Coroners
All ACT Magistrates are also coroners and the Chief Magistrate is the Chief Coroner. The Registrar of the Magistrates Court is also the Registrar of the Coroner's Court.
What is the role of a Coroner?
A Coroner must hold an inquest – that is, investigate – the manner and cause of death of persons who die or who are suspected to have died in circumstances specified by legislation. This includes deaths in custody, people who have not seen a doctor in some time, accidental deaths, deaths in unknown circumstances, and certain health-care related deaths.
A Coroner must hold an inquiry into the cause and origin of a fire that has destroyed or damaged property if requested to do so by the Attorney-General, or the Coroner is of the opinion that an inquiry into the cause and origin of the fire should be held.
The Chief Coroner must, if requested to do so by the Attorney General, cause an inquiry to be held into the cause and origin of a disaster.
The full and current list of categories of deaths that the Coroner must investigate can be found here.
The Coroner’s role is a very public one. The community relies on the Coroner to:
- determine the identity of the deceased;
- inquire into the date, time, place, cause and manner of death;
- refer the matter to the Director of Public Prosecutions where it appears that a known person has committed an indictable offence in connection with a death;
- comment on and bring to notice factors which may be altered to prevent further death or injury; and/or
- expose other matters of public importance.
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 is not bound to observe the rules of evidence.
A Coroner may, and in some cases must, hold a hearing and call witnesses to assist in determining the matters the Coroner must find. At such a hearing the Coroner may call witnesses to give evidence. Evidence is taken under oath. Hearings are open to the public. Any person may attend and listen to the proceedings. In certain circumstances the Coroner may exclude individuals or the public generally and prohibit the publication of evidence. A person summoned to give evidence at a hearing, or a person with sufficient interest in the subject matter of the inquest or inquiry, may be given leave by the Coroner to appear in person at the hearing or to be represented by a lawyer. A person who is granted leave to appear at a hearing is entitled to examine and cross-examine witnesses on matters relevant to the inquest or inquiry to which the hearing relates.
Investigation by Police
The Coroner's Office arranges for members of the Australian Federal Police to investigate the circumstances surrounding the death of a person and to provide a report to the Coroner. In such an investigation the police officers are acting for, and under the control of, the Coroner. The presence of Police at a death scene does not mean that a criminal investigation is taking place.
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.
Deaths in Custody
A death in custody is a death that occurs in one of the circumstances set out in section 3C of the Coroners Act 1997. Deaths in custody include the death of a person at a correctional facility or lockup, while performing work under a community service order and while in, being taken into, or after being taken into the custody of a custodial officer; but also the deaths of persons subject to orders under the Mental Health Act 2005. For purposes of the Coroners Act 1997 deaths in custody also include deaths resulting from a fatal injury sustained in similar places or circumstances to deaths in custody. Part 6 of the Coroners Act 1997 contains additional specific provisions that apply to inquests in respect of deaths in custody. The Coroner must hold a hearing for the purpose of an inquest into a death in custody.
Dispensing with hearing
Other than deaths in custody, where a hearing must be held, the Coroner has a discretion as to whether to hold a hearing for the purposes of an inquest. Not all deaths will result in the Coroner conducting a hearing.
A Coroner may decide not to conduct a hearing into a death if, after consideration of information given to the Coroner relating to the death of a person, the Coroner is satisfied that the manner and cause of death are sufficiently disclosed and a hearing is unnecessary. Where a Coroner decides not to conduct a hearing into a death the Coroner must give written notice of the decision setting out the grounds for the decision to a member of the immediate family of the deceased.
Most (~95-98%) deaths reported to the ACT Coroner do not have a hearing held for the purposes of the inquest. Hearings will only be held for around 10 matters per year.
A person may request a coroner to hold a hearing. If the coroner refuses, the person may apply to the Chief Coroner for the review of the decision by the Coroner not to hold a hearing, and thereafter may apply to the Supreme Court.
A Coroner holding an inquest must find, if possible:
- the identity of the deceased;
- when and where the death happened;
- the manner and cause of death, and
- in the case of the suspected death of a person — that the person has died.
A Coroner holding an inquiry must find, if possible:
- the cause and origin of the fire or disaster, and
- the circumstances in which the fire or disaster happened.
Complying with a Subpoena
A Coroner may subpoena a person to give evidence or produce a thing or documents at a time and date specified in the subpoena.
If you have received a subpoena to produce documents or things to the Coroner and are not required to give evidence you may comply with the subpoena by producing the documents or things to the Coroner before the date specified on the subpoena. In such case the documents should be delivered to the Court Registry in the Magistrates Court Building Knowles Place, Canberra City.
If you are served with a subpoena to give evidence you will need to attend the hearing at the time and place specified in the subpoena. If you are unable to attend the hearing as required you should contact the Court Registry as soon as possible after receiving the subpoena.
At the time of being served with the subpoena you will be given an undertaking to appear which you must sign and return to the Coroner. You will also be given an expenses form to complete to claim your expenses for attendance at the hearing.
If you fail to comply with a subpoena served on you the coroner may issue a warrant for your arrest. If you are arrested for failing to comply with a subpoena you will be taken before the Coroner who may direct that you be held in custody or be released on a recognisance to return to court at a specified time. Failure to appear at the later time may lead to you being arrested again and your recognisance being forfeited.
For additional details concerning the Coroner's responsibilities, as well as answers to some commonly asked questions, please see Information About the Coroners Court and the Death of a Relative or Friend.