Nunatsiaq Online
COMMENTARY: Nunavut November 17, 2016 - 10:30 am

Legal Ease, Nov. 17

Coroner's Inquests

JAMES MORTON

In Nunavut, the Chief Coroner is a government appointee whose job is to review and consider deaths that are somehow out of the ordinary.

The coroner has a very important job and one element of that job is conducting inquests into deaths that are somehow unusual or unexpected.

Coroner’s inquests are public hearings held to investigate how someone died and to make recommendations to avoid similar deaths in the future. An inquest can be held if a death:

• occurs as a result of apparent violence, accident, suicide or other apparent cause other than disease, sickness or old age;

• occurs as a result of apparent negligence, misconduct or malpractice;

• occurs suddenly and unexpectedly when the deceased was in apparent good health;

• occurs within 10 days after a medical procedure or while the deceased is under or recovering from anesthesia;

• occurs during the course of employment;

• is a stillbirth that occurs without the presence of a medical practitioner;

• occurs while the deceased is detained or in custody involuntarily pursuant to law in a jail, lock-up, correctional facility, medical facility or other institution; or,

• occurs while the deceased is detained by or in the custody of a police officer.

Coroner’s inquests are not regular trials although they look like them—they are not intended to, and indeed cannot, assign civil or criminal blame.

Though it is not a trial, an inquest has a jury, and that jury has the ability to make recommendations to try to prevent other deaths; that is their main function.

Under the Coroners Act, an inquest is held to determine:

•  the identity of the deceased;

• the date, time and place of death;

• the cause of death;

• the manner of death; and,

• the circumstances under which the death occurred.

Usually most if not all of these questions are fairly obvious. As a result most of the time the most important function of an inquest is to make “any recommendation that [would] be of assistance in preventing similar deaths.”

Inquests can be held where there is some dangerous situation, or perhaps mysterious circumstances, involved with a death; basically situations outlined above.

Such inquests may be held if the coroner considers it necessary in the public interest. If someone dies and the coroner does not direct an inquest, the deceased’s family can ask for an inquest. That does not mean there will be an inquest but the coroner will take such requests very seriously. When someone dies in police or other legal custody, an inquest is mandatory. 

If there are criminal charges likely or pending, an inquest will generally be delayed until the charges are resolved.

As mentioned, a coroner’s inquest is not a trial but it does have a jury. The jury is composed of six community members and they are chosen in basically the same way as a civil or criminal jury.

A coroner’s inquest may look like a regular court proceeding but it is something different; instead of a judge, a coroner presides over the hearings and a jury of community members also takes part. The coroner directs the process and makes sure the jury stays on track.

People who have an interest in the inquest—family of the deceased, persons who may have some connection to the death or people otherwise affected—are generally allowed to have lawyers at the inquest.

Inquests are, except in very special circumstances, always public and people who want to give evidence are generally allowed to. The Coroners Act provides “The coroner shall hear any person who wishes to give evidence at an inquest so long as the evidence is not vexatious or irrelevant.” 

This last point is important because even if the coroner’s inquest does not deliver recommendations that are adopted for the future, there is a great value in allowing the community to hear what happened and to be able to express their thoughts in a public forum.

Justice is often served by letting the community speak and listen.

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