A dramatic drop in the number of coroner’s inquests being undertaken and long delays before cases are heard and findings released are concerning trends, Federated Farmers health and safety spokesperson Karen Williams says.
“From media reports it does seem that our coroners are sinking under the workload. They shouldn’t be put in this situation,” Karen, who is also Feds’ national vice-president, said.
Stuff senior journalist Nikki Macdonald recently reported that the number of coroner’s inquests has plummeted five-fold since 2012. Just 62 unexpected deaths were investigated by inquest in 2019, compared to 330 in 2012. There were only 24 inquests in 2020, but COVID-19 lockdowns took a toll last year.
In the rural sector, coroner’s inquests into deaths from causes such as machinery rolling, quad bike crush incidents, suicides, and road accidents where fatigue, drugs or poorly maintained work vehicles were indicated can often provide valuable information and recommendations that can help protect others.
“The sooner we get the reasons behind fatalities on farm, the sooner we can alert people to the risk or the things to look out for/avoid, and work with stakeholders to action this,” Karen said.
“From a mental health perspective, we all know we have high numbers of people in the ag sector who take their own lives. Due to these delays in the coronial system, I wonder how up to date the suicide statistics are, and therefore the follow on response and urgency of that response.”
Chief Coroner Deborah Marshall told the Minister of Courts in May this year that the main reason for the fall in the number of inquests was pressure on overloaded coroners to reduce ballooning delays.
With an unexplained death, coroners can deal with it by reading the reports of relevant authorities and medical staff, or conduct an inquiry, or a full inquest. In her comments Marshall said a greater level of, and quality of, information comes from inquests and it’s more satisfying to interested parties and grieving relatives when a death is investigated in a courtroom setting.
According to the November Stuff report, cases needing an inquiry have been taking an average of 877 days, and those going to inquest 1451 days. Karen says, “Delays can be extremely distressing to relatives and until such time as the inquiry or inquest decisions are released, there is little closure for the family.”
The Chief Coroner’s May briefing said the number of unresolved coroners’ inquiries is expected to blow out by 400 in the next three years, this despite last year’s appointment of eight new part-time coroners to join 18 full-timers.
Courts Minister Aupito William Sio said a new “frailty of old age” death certificate category should reduce the number of natural deaths unnecessarily referred to coroners and he has asked for a report on potential operational and law changes that could reduce workloads and unclog case flow.