University studies coronial impotence

A major research study by University of Otago researchers will review whether recommendations and findings from coroners are currently being heeded to prevent further loss of life.

University of Otago Faculty of Law researchers Professor Mark Henaghan and Dr Jennifer Moore will collect and analyse approximately 1,000 recommendations from between 2006 and 2011, as well as interviewing approximately 16 coroners and at least 45 agencies, to find out why coroners’ recommendations were or were not implemented.

Chief Coroner Judge Neil MacLean recently commented on TVNZ’s Q+A that there is a “sense of frustration that what [coroners are] saying seems not to be making any difference.” Judge MacLean said that coroner recommendations should result in mandatory responses, as is the case in other countries, and the current system in New Zealand regularly sees recommendations “die in the ditch”.

Dr Moore told Critic that the goal of the research was not to judge anyone, but “to try to maximise the coroners’ preventative roles.” She hoped the study would help identify principles that may be beneficial when formulating recommendations. “Coroners currently receive little constructive feedback on the effectiveness of their recommendations.”

The purpose of the coronial system is to make recommendations after unnatural or violent deaths, to reduce the occurrence of further deaths in similar circumstances. However, the death this year of 12-year-old Darius Logan Claxton from butane inhalation in a Christchurch car park highlights the impotence of coroners’ recommendations, with coroners having already encountered 28 butane deaths from 2007 to 2011.

Dr Moore, who will be presenting a paper at Harvard in August on the topic, said the needs of families were important. “A common refrain of those who have lost family members is that they want the coronial system to ensure that this doesn’t happen to anyone else. New Zealand families believe and hope that coroners’ findings and recommendations can make a massive difference to saving people’s lives.”

The Law Foundation is fully funding the research at a cost of $138,000. The project is expected to be completed in late 2015.
This article first appeared in Issue 13, 2012.
Posted 7:40pm Sunday 27th May 2012 by Claudia Herron.