ACT Parliament Considering Bill To Amend Coronial Legislation to Improve Process

Thursday 20 February 2020 @ 11.08 a.m. | Judiciary, Legal Profession & Procedure | Legal Research

The Coroners Amendment Bill 2020 (the Bill) was introduced into the ACT Assembly on 13 February 2020 by the Attorney-General, Gordon Ramsay MLA. The Bill aims to make amendments to the Coroners Act 1997 (ACT) with the intention of providing a better response to the need for justice of families engaging with the coronial system in the ACT, and to make it easier for the Coroners Court to implement restorative approaches in its daily practice. The amendments contained in the Bill are described by the Attorney-General as being ".one part of a larger project aimed at making Canberra a 'Restorative City'". The Restorative Cities concept is "based upon the principles of restorative practice – which recognise that relationships are central to our wellbeing, our community and our society".

According to restorative practitioner Rhian Williams:

"The challenge, particularly given Canberra wants to become a restorative city, is how do we build this system so it is more humane for everyone? . . . When families are vulnerable and experiencing devastating grief, that's a point where our system should be stepping up and meeting them instead of requiring them to accommodate themselves within the system."

In a media release dated 13 February 2020, the Attorney-General announced, alongside the introduction of the Bill, that the ACT Coroner’s Court would begin recruitment for a Family Liaison Officer position to provide support to families and friends of deceased Canberrans as they progress through the system. The Attorney-General stated that:

“After speaking directly with families with lived experience in the system, it was abundantly clear to me that the recruitment of a Family Liaison Officer was a top priority.”

Key Amendments

The amendments proposed to the Coroners Act 1997 (ACT) by the Bill are intended to acknowledge the significant impact of a coronial inquest or inquiry on the family and friends of a deceased person.  The amendments aim to ensure that, wherever possible, families should be able to engage with the process and be kept informed of the particulars and progress of an inquest into their family member’s death.

The Bill also includes a proposed amendment making it clear that, as far as it is practicable to do so, ". . . cultural considerations should be taken into account and respected throughout the coronial process".

The Bill also proposes amendments which:

  • create the definition of "death in care" which is to apply to deaths where a person was subject to an order under the Mental Health Act 2015 (ACT) or the Crimes Act 1900 (ACT) section 309;
  • include step-parents in the definition of "member of the immediate family" for the purpose of the Coroners Act 1997 (ACT) as well as expressly stating in the Coroners Act 1997 (ACT) that the immediate family should be invited to participate in the coronial process at the earliest possible opportunity;
  • create an error correction power for the Coroners Court to allow a coroner to amend their findings to correct an error, mistake or omission, making it clear for families that they do not need to appeal to the ACT Supreme Court to correct an error in coronial findings resulting from an accidental slip or omission;
  • create a power to make guidelines which will allow the Attorney-General to issue guidelines to assist in the preparation of government responses to coronial findings under the Coroners Act 1997 (ACT) section 57; and
  • make clear the notice periods for providing information to families in relation to hearings and increasing the notice period required before hearings from 14 to 28 days.

Public Comments

According the Attorney-General the proposed amendments were:

". . . the result of extensive consultation with key stakeholders and families with lived experience of the ACT coronial system. The input from stakeholders has significantly informed the amendments proposed in this Bill."

However, the Canberra Times reports that members of the Coronial Reform Group, a group of three members who each had bad experiences with the system, and that has "spent years campaigning for change", have "expressed disappointment" at what was seen as a lack of consultation before the Bill was tabled. One member of the group told the paper:

"We are supposed to be setting up a restorative, collaborative process, and the way this [consultation] has been handled has not been at all a good example of that . . ."

Another member is reported as stating that the group was:

"furious about the lack of communication from the government since the November forum, where she felt families' voices had not been heard. . . The government has been talking about wanting to act in a restorative manner, but there's been very little evidence of that so far . . . "

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