The Victorian Government has introduced a Bill proposing to no longer require mandatory inquests into deaths in custody, if the Coroner ‘considers that the death was due to natural causes’. Deaths in custody will however still be subject to investigation by the Coroner’s Court of Victoria.
Under the current version of the Coroners Act 2008 (Vic), the coroner ‘must hold an inquest’ where ‘the deceased was, immediately before death, a person placed in custody or care’. The amendments will insert an exception to this general rule, for deaths ‘due to natural causes’. The Bill states that a death may be considered ‘due to natural causes’ in circumstances where a medical investigator, in accordance with the rules, provides a report to the Coroner which expresses an opinion to that effect.
It is unclear at this stage whether this Bill – the Courts Legislation Miscellaneous Amendments Bill 2014 – will be passed. At present the Second Reading Speech for the Bill has occurred, but Parliament is yet to vote on the Bill.
During the Second Reading Speech, Attorney-General The Honourable Robert Clark, explained the proposed amendments:
Deaths in custody or care which are the result of natural causes will no longer require a lengthy (and in many cases unnecessary) inquest. Instead, deaths will be the subject of a full investigation, with findings made and published according to the rules. It will remain open to the Coroner to hold an inquest, and a person may request that the Coroner does so.
The Bill includes other amendments that if passed, will affect the Coroners Court. It proposes to reduce the time limits for appeal to the Supreme Court. It also proposes to widen the grounds on which appeal can be made. Under the Coroners Court Act 2008 (Vic) currently, appeals can only be made to the Supreme Court on points of law, however the Bill proposes to allow the Supreme Court to hear an appeal where it ‘is satisfied that it is necessary or desirable in the interests of justice to do so’.
The Attorney-General has stated that: ‘This appeal provision is an important safeguard in the operation of the proposed ‘natural causes’ provisions, but will apply to decisions in relation to inquests more broadly’.