What is a reportable death?
The Coroners Act 2003 provides for the investigation of reportable deaths. Reportable deaths are defined as deaths where:
- the identity of the person is unknown
- the death was violent or unnatural
- the death happened in suspicious circumstances
- a ‘cause of death’ certificate has not been issued and is not likely to be issued
- the death was a health care related death
- the death occurred in care
- the death occurred in custody
- the death occurred as a result of police operations.
The identity of the person is unknown
Even if there is nothing suspicious about the death, unless the identity of the deceased can be established with sufficient certainty to enable the death to be registered, the death must be reported to a coroner. Fingerprints, photographs, dental examinations or DNA can be used to identify the person.
Violent or unnatural deaths
A death is violent or unnatural if it is not the result of the natural progression of a disease but is caused by accident, suicide or homicide. Car accidents, falls, drowning, electrocutions, drug overdoses, and industrial and domestic accidents are all reported to coroners under this category. A death is reportable under this category even if there is a delay between the incident causing injury and the death, as long as the injury caused or contributed to the death and without the injury the person would not have died.
Suspicious deaths are reported to coroners for investigation. If police consider there is sufficient evidence to prefer criminal charges in connection with the death they may do so. In these cases, the coronial investigation is postponed until those charges are resolved.
A ‘cause of death’ certificate has not been issued and is not likely to be issued
Medical practitioners are obliged to issue a cause of death certificate if they can ascertain the probable cause of death. If this is not possible the death is reported to the coroner so that an autopsy can be ordered to determine the medical cause of death.
Health care related deaths
‘Health care’ means a health procedure or any care, treatment, advice, service or goods provided for the benefit of human health. A health procedure includes any dental, medical, surgical, diagnostic or other health related procedure, including giving an anaesthetic or other drug.
Health care related deaths include deaths that result from a failure to treat or diagnose, and clinical or medication incidents and errors.
A death will be health care related if health care or a failure to provide health care caused or contributed to the death and, before the health care was provided, an independent person (who is qualified in the area of health care) would not have expected the health care to cause or contribute to the death or for the death to occur at that time.
The independent person can look at all of the circumstances including:
- the person’s known state of health before the health care was provided, for example, whether they had any underlying disease, condition or injury
- the clinically accepted range of risk associated with the health care.
Deaths in care
A death will be a death in care if the person who died:
- had a disability under the Disability Services Act 2006 and lived in either a level three accredited residential service (commonly referred to as a hostel) or a government funded or provided residential service
- was subject to involuntary assessment or treatment under the Mental Health Act 2000 or the Forensic Disability Act 2011 and was either being taken to or detained in an authorised mental health service or the forensic disability service, detained because of a court order, or undertaking limited community treatment
- was a child awaiting adoption under the Adoption Act 2009
- was a child who lived away from their parents as a result of action taken under the Child Protection Act 1999.
An inquest must be held for deaths in care if the circumstances of the case raise issues about the care provided to the deceased person.
Deaths in custody
A death will be a death in custody if the person died while in custody, escaping from custody or trying to avoid being put into custody. ‘Custody’ is broadly defined to capture detention under any state or Commonwealth legislation (with some limited exceptions) whether or not by police. Deaths in custody must be reported to the state coroner or deputy state coroner and an inquest must be held.
Deaths occurring as a result of police operations
Deaths occurring in the course of or as a result of police operations include the death of an innocent bystander while police are attempting to detain a suspect. These deaths can only be reported to the state coroner or deputy state coroner and an inquest must be held unless the coroner is satisfied that the circumstances do not require an inquest.
Who reports the death to the coroner?
The Coroners Act 2003 imposes a duty on people to report reportable deaths if they are aware of a reportable death and do not think that it has already been reported.
If the person who died had a disability and lived in a level three accredited residential service or a government funded or provided residential service, then the service provider must report the death even if the person died elsewhere (for example, in hospital) and the death may have been reported by another person. A higher obligation is placed on these service providers because the services are provided to particularly vulnerable members of society.
Usually a police officer or medical practitioner will report a death to the coroner.