Chief Coroner: Insufficient resourcing contributes to 60% drop in Queensland inquests

Inquests conducted by Queensland coroners over the past decade have decreased by almost 60%, according to Chief Coroner Terry Ryan.

Mr Ryan says the decrease is due to insufficient resourcing to undertake more detailed work in response to a surge in more complex cases.

The latest data from the Coroners Court of Queensland shows the number of reported deaths rose by 27% between 2012-13 and 2021/22 – from 4762 to 6044.

However, Mr Ryan says the increased number of reported deaths and complex cases, without the provision of additional staff and resources, has impacted significantly on the number of inquests held.

Details of the trend are highlighted in the Coroners Court of Queensland 2021-22 Annual Report tabled in Parliament last month.

Queensland currently has seven specialist full-time coroners – who were appointed and retain authority to serve as magistrates – located in Cairns, Mackay, Brisbane and Southport.

Indeed, all of Queensland’s 101 magistrates are appointed as coroners and act in that role as, and when, required.

Chief Coroner Ryan, in his overview in the latest report tabled by Attorney-General Shannon Fentiman on 16 December, said the number of deaths reported to his office had increased significantly over the past decade, while the number of permanent full-time coroners appointed to his office had not increased in more than a decade.

“The number of full-time coroners has not increased since the appointment of the Central Coroner (at Mackay) in August 2012,” he said. “The increase in the number of deaths reported has arguably also contributed to a reduction in the number of inquests held.

“For example, in 2012-13 there were 66 inquests finalised compared to 27 in 2021-22.

“This reflects the reduced capacity of coroners to undertake more detailed work as they respond to increasing numbers of complex cases.”

Mr Ryan did voice his gratitude for the State Government’s allocation of “temporary funding for an additional coroner” over the last two Budgets to assist in investigating domestic and family violence (DFV) related deaths.

“However, consideration should be given to undertaking a benchmarking exercise with comparable jurisdictions to develop a sustainable resourcing model for the court,” he said.

Mr Ryan also flagged the ongoing global coronavirus pandemic as a continuing stressor on the State Coroner’s office.

“As a consequence of the increase in the number of COVID-19 deaths in the community, more deaths of this nature flowed through to the court, reported as potential health care-related deaths, or deaths where medical practitioners were not in a position to issue a cause of death certificate,” Mr Ryan said.

“Despite the record number of deaths reported, the court was able to maintain a clearance rate over 100% for the fourth consecutive year. The court was also able to reduce the average number of days taken to finalise cases from 169 to 144.

“Despite the significant increase in lodgements, the court’s backlog indicator only marginally increased to 14.82%.”

Mr Ryan said more than 50% of the cases in the backlog were awaiting criminal proceedings or would be the subject of an inquest.

High-profile coroner inquests conducted in Queensland in 2022 involved the DFV deaths of Hannah Clarke and her three children, the shooting death of a stuntman on the set of a music video set for the band Bliss n Eso, as well as findings regarding the drowning deaths of Palm Island men Troy Mathieson, 23, and Hughie Morton, 21, while being pursued by police during the February 2019 Townsville floods.

Read the Coroners Court of Queensland 2021-22 Annual Report.

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