New coronial approach should lead to greater safety information

The Australian State of Victoria has been in a fortuitous position with a Coroner, Graeme Johnstone, who was a staunch advocate of safety in the public and workplace spheres.  Johnstone was a strong and physical presence at many conferences and in the media.  Indeed, it would be difficult to find a more obvious and influential safety advocate in Australia over the last twenty years.

Johnstone retired recently due to ill-health.  From 4 November 2009, his successor, Jennifer Coate, will be sitting in an official Coroners Court and the supportive legislation should provide even greater support to safety advocates.

According to a media release issued in support of the Court, there are several important legislative changes.

  • The power of the court to make recommendations to any Minister, public statutory body or entity relating to public health and safety and the administration of justice. Previously recommendations could only be made to Ministers.
  • Importantly, any Minister, public statutory body or entity either receiving or  [sic] the [sic]of a recommendation must now respond in writing within three months stating what action will be taken (if any) as a result of the recommendations. This has never been required before and is an Australian first.
  • All inquest findings, coronial recommendations and responses to recommendations will be published on the internet, unless otherwise ordered by a coroner. This is the first time in Victorian coronial history that a requirement to publish inquest findings has been enshrined in legislation.
  • A new power for coroners to compel witnesses to testify without the risk of self incrimination. The court will now be able to issue a certificate excusing evidence heard by the court from being used to incriminate witnesses in other court proceedings.”

On the first point, how much different would have been the approach to level crossing safety with this authority?  Would the faulty design of some level crossings have been changed more quickly?  Of course, recommendations are still only recommendations but by referring to statutory authorities and others, there is likely to be less direct political spin and, perhaps, greater accountability.

This leads to the second point, timelines.  Any meeting, action item, control measure or even correspondence, should have a timeline for response.  This will allow the families of victims a hook on which they can hang their dissatisfaction with government inaction.  Of course, there is usually no guarantee that correspondence is publicly accessible but to bullet point three.

Not only will inquest findings now be easily accessible to the public, the government responses mentioned above will be made available on the Coroner’s website.

Around ten years ago I was writing a book on occupational health and safety in the sex industry in Australia.  I requested details form the Coroner’s office of deaths in this industry.  I received many pages of decisions which helped considerably in determining whether deaths occurred at work or in relation to work.

Several years later, I put in a similar request for information on dairy-related deaths in support of a WorkSafe Victoria guidance with which I was assisting.  The level of detail provided then was a line or two on each incident.  It was enough to prepare a rough data table but was woefully unhelpful in the preparation of case studies of work-related fatalities.  The accessibility allowed under the new laws will allow for a greater, and more public, understanding of the contributing factors to death which should lead to greater options for elimination or control.

The Coroner is clearly enthusiastic about her new powers.  In the media release Coates says

“This new legislation will better enable the court to thoroughly examine and investigate the different types of deaths reported to us so we can help prevent similar deaths from occurring.  Of real significance is the requirement that any body or entity receiving a recommendation must respond to us. This will be a real mechanism for change to public safety and we expect enormous benefits for the Victorian community to follow,” she said.

Judge Coate said publishing inquest findings, recommendations and responses on the internet would make public statutory authorities and entities more aware of their responsibility to respond to coronial findings.

“The new response requirement means the recommendations of a coroner cannot be selectively pursued or ignored. This is an important gain for the public safety and administration of justice for our community”

She said the publication of inquest findings, recommendations and responses on the internet would also make the coronial process more accessible to families who experience the death of a loved one investigated by the court.

“We have gone to great lengths to ensure our new practices under the Act recognise and have regard for the families and friends of a loved one who has died.  That includes acknowledging the distress of families and their need for support and a recognition that different cultures have different beliefs and practices surrounding death.”

SafetyAtWorkBlog wishes Coroner Coates all the best and will be keenly watching the progress.

Kevin Jones

Categories communication, death, evidence, law, lawyers, media, OHS, safety, transport, Uncategorized, workplaceTags , , ,

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