Information for families: What happens at a coronial inquest?
Information for Families
What happens at a coronial inquest?
This publication may contain work health and safety and workers compensation information. It may include some of your obligations under the various legislations that WorkCover NSW administers. To ensure you comply with your legal obligations you must refer to the appropriate legislation.
Information on the latest laws can be checked by visiting the NSW legislation website (www.legislation.nsw.gov.au).
This publication does not represent a comprehensive statement of the law as it applies to particular problems or to individuals or as a substitute for legal advice. You should seek independent legal advice if you need assistance on the application of the law to your situation.
What is a coronial inquest?
A coronial inquest is a court hearing where the Coroner considers evidence to determine the identity, date, place, manner and cause of death of your relative.
Although the Coroner sometimes makes recommendations of a preventative nature, they do not release findings that attribute blame or responsibility for the death of your relative or for the incident.
Is an inquest always held?
Not always. The Coroner is responsible for deciding whether or not to hold an inquest. If the Coroner is able to consider all available evidence, such as the statements of witnesses and medical reports, and is satisfied that there are no outstanding matters to be determined, they may decide that an inquest is not necessary.
Can I ask for an inquest to be held?
Yes. Make a written request to the Coroner, clearly stating your reasons for the request. The Coroner will then decide whether to hold an inquest. You will be notified if the Coroner determines that an inquest is not necessary.
Will I be informed that an inquest is to be held?
Yes. The senior next of kin will be advised of the date and place of the inquest.
What is WorkCover's role in a coronial inquest?
WorkCover assists the Coroner in their deliberations. The WorkCover NSW inspector who investigated the matter will be represented by a solicitor and barrister (usually known as counsel), who will cross-examine witnesses and make appropriate submissions to the Coroner at the conclusion of the inquest.
What is the process of an inquest?
The Coroner may call witnesses to give evidence of their knowledge of the circumstances surrounding the death of your relative. The WorkCover inspector will usually be called to give evidence or answer questions about material provided in the WorkCover Report for Coroner.
A legal representative, called a 'counsel assisting', will assist the Coroner. They will ask questions of witnesses on behalf of the Coroner, although the Coroner may also ask questions of witnesses directly.
The counsel assisting can also ask questions of witnesses on behalf of the family, usually on behalf of the senior next of kin.
Inquests are generally open to the public, so anyone may attend and listen to the proceedings. In certain circumstances, the Coroner has the power to exclude individuals, or the public generally, from attending proceedings. The Coroner can also prohibit the publication of evidence.
Will I have to give evidence at the inquest?
The Coroner may ask that you give evidence as a witness, depending on the circumstances of the death.
If you have not been called to give evidence and you believe there is sufficient reason to be called, apply to the court in writing. Once your application has been considered, you will be advised if you are required to give evidence.
Can I ask questions at the inquest?
Yes. Family members can ask questions at the inquest. Some families choose to employ a solicitor to ask questions of the witnesses on their behalf. Other families choose to have one family member act as a representative, who asks questions through the counsel assisting the Coroner.
Can I make a statement to the Coroner?
Yes. Some families provide a short statement to the Coroner that describes their relative. They may include a photograph which is kept on the coronial files.
You may ask the counsel assisting to read your statement, or seek permission to read it yourself.
Contact the counsel assisting through the court registry, or through the local court if the matter is being held in a regional court.
Do I need a solicitor to represent me?
The decision to seek legal representation lies with the family and you may wish to consider what legal representation could achieve before you decide to go ahead. Most solicitors who have experience with coronial matters will advise you of the possible benefits should you want legal representation.
How long does an inquest last?
Inquests may vary from an hour to many weeks, depending on the complexity of the case and the number of witnesses called to give evidence.
Generally, you will be told how long the inquest is 'set down' for. However, the Coroner may finish the inquest early, or extend it to accommodate further witnesses or evidence.
What happens at the end of the inquest?
At the end of the inquest, the Coroner makes a 'finding'. Sometimes, however, the finding will be held over and given at a later date.
Findings can vary in length, from a single page to many pages.
The Coroner may make recommendations for various actions to be undertaken by relevant authorities. Government agencies have to report back if recommendations have been made for which they are responsible.
WorkCover reviews any material that arises from an inquest when making its decisions about further action under work health and safety laws.
Can I get a copy of the finding?
Yes. The finding can be sent to the senior next of kin, and to others as directed by the Coroner. You may need to make a written application at the end of the inquest. Ask clerical staff at the State Coroner's Office or the Local Court to assist you.
Is there court support available?
An inquest can be a difficult but necessary process for family members whose relatives have died in a workplace incident.
Sometimes, evidence given at the inquest can be distressing, as there could be details about the circumstances of the death of which you were not aware.
You can seek the support of a counsellor or court support worker to assist in negotiating the coronial process.
The Coronial Information and Support Program (CISP) may be able to provide you support during the inquest. Contact them on (02) 8584 7777.
You can also contact the WorkCover Coordinator, Counselling and Family Liaison on 1800 806 626 (free call) if you require court support.
For further information on the Coroner's role, contact the State Coroner's Court or the Coronial Information and Support Program on (02) 8584 7777 or www.lawlink.nsw.gov.au
WorkCover acknowledges the NSW State Coroner's Court for their assistance in preparing this booklet.
Catalogue No. WC03498
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