Proctor : September 2018
One of the most challenging roles of being magistrate is when they are required to act as a coroner. Queensland has seven full-time coroners – however, every Queensland magistrate can be called on to act as a coroner and investigate the circumstances and causes of ‘reportable’ deaths. ‘Reportable deaths’ are any cases where a person’s identity is unknown, the death was violent or unnatural, the death happened in suspicious circumstances, the ‘cause of death’ certificate hasn’t been issued and isn’t likely to be, the death was related to health care, occurred in care, custody or as the result of police operations. Once a death is reported, the coroner begins the process of investigating the circumstances of the death. That may involve an autopsy and/or an inquest, resulting in the coroner making findings and, potentially, recommendations for how to prevent the type of death occurring again. While the job can be very mentally and emotionally taxing – coroner’s investigations and inquests can often attract intense media scrutiny and public interest. High-profile past inquests includes hearings into the deaths of Sunshine Coast schoolboy Daniel Morcombe, the likely murder of 16-year-old Rachel Antonio in Bowen more than 20 years ago, the 2004 Indigenous death in custody of Cameron ‘Mulrunji’ Doomadgee in a police watchhouse cell on Palm Island and the jailhouse deaths of Queensland’s first serial killer Leonard Fraser (a career criminal and multiple rapist convicted and jailed indefinitely for the slaying of three Rockhampton women and 11-year- old schoolgirl Keyra Steinhardt) and notorious child-killer Valmae Beck. Like all other Queensland lower courts, the Coroner’s Court labours away under an extremely heavy and burdensome workload and between 2011-17 it received almost 30,000 notifications of ‘reportable deaths’ – 353 of which were the subject of coronial inquest hearings. Figures obtained from the 2016-17 Coroners of Court of Queensland Annual Report show among those that were subject to inquest – 25 of the reportable deaths were victims of the 2011 floods, 18 were deaths in custody, nine from quad bike incidents and five from single Pacific Motorway traffic crashes. Despite the demanding amount of cases, the court finalised 29,644 of the cases reported. Queensland’s current State Coroner, Terry Ryan, oversees and coordinates the Queensland coronial system to ensure it is administered efficiently and appropriately. Mr Ryan is based in Brisbane and is supported by Deputy State Coroner John Lock and fellow coroners Christine Clements and John Hutton. Northern Coroner Nerida Wilson, who is based in Cairns, is responsible for covering the regions south to Bowen, west to Mt Isa and north to the border of Papua New Guinea. Central Coroner David O’Connell, based in Mackay, covers all Central Queensland deaths extending from Proserpine and the Whitsundays in the north to Gayndah in the south. South-Eastern Coroner James McDougall, located at Southport, investigate deaths in the Gold Coast region as well as Beenleigh and Logan. In Queensland, the role of a coroner carries many powers and responsibilities, including whether an inquest should be held if they consider it is in the public interest to do so. They may decide in some cases that an inquest should be held because there is significant doubt about the cause and circumstances of death, or believe an inquest may prevent future deaths or uncover systemic issues that affect public health and safety. A coroner also holds the unique power of making a finding that there is a prima facie case – sufficient evidence – to recommend or commit one or more people be ordered to stand trial before a jury of their peers over a person’s suspicious or unexpected death. An estimated 95% of all of court cases dealt with in Queensland each year are handled by the state’s 100 magistrates. Queensland’s Magistrates Court is the first point of call for almost all cases and almost exclusively the venue where anyone accused of a criminal offence will appear. Although it is considered the lowest court in the state – as opposed to the District or Supreme Courts and the highest in the state, the Court of Appeal – the Magistrates Court hears a myriad of matters. Unlike the Supreme and District Courts, a Magistrates Court has no jury. Therefore, the magistrate makes all decisions in criminal matters, including any penalty. On any given day, a magistrate sitting in one of the more than 130 Magistrates Courts dotted across Queensland’s 1.853 million square kilometres can be responsible for dealing with accused murders, unlawful killers (manslaughter), rapists, child molesters, arsonists, fraudsters, thieves, armed-bandits, and minor offenders, involving domestic and family violence matters, civil cases up to $150,000, the Murri Court, drug and alcohol diversion, Childrens Court, or even acting as a coroner. Queensland does have specialist magistrates such Childrens Court Magistrate Leanne O’Shea (who is also Deputy Chief Magistrate) and a number of coroners covering different regions, but all magistrates’ commissions empower them to also rule in Childrens Court matters, coronial inquests, as members of the Queensland Civil Administrative Tribunal, in minor family court hearings, and in arrest and bail hearings, as well as issuing warrants requested by police or government agencies. In essence a magistrate’s brief is wide and requires them to be jacks and jills of all trades in the legal profession. Role of the court and its magistrates Magistrates as coroners Courts presided over by magistrates include: Criminal, Civil, Domestic and Family Violence Court, Murri Court, Coroners Court, Children’s Court, Drug and Alcohol Court, Mental Health Court and Queensland Civil and Administrative Tribunal.