Coroner's office resources and capabilities

2 December 2020

Mr DULUK (Waite) (15:16): My question is to the Attorney-General. Attorney, what measures are you undertaking to ensure that the Coroner's office is appropriately resourced to reduce the backlog on the issuance of Forensic Science South Australia post-mortem reports? With your leave and that of the house, sir, I will further explain.

Mr DULUK: Recently, a constituent contacted my office and expressed her concern and distress at waiting more than 17 months to receive a final death certificate for her late husband.

The Hon. V.A. CHAPMAN (Bragg—Deputy Premier, Attorney-General, Minister for Planning and Local Government) (15:16): I thank the member for his question. It is a question that has been asked and a concern that this government met when we came into office, that there was not only a backlog in cases in relation to waiting for inquests but also a significant delay in receiving permission in cases for the allowing of burials and/or cremations, for the services.

There are a number of initiatives the government took. One was to provide and install a CT scanner with Forensic Science SA, which, on recollection, has reduced autopsies by 30 per cent thus enabling a much quicker processing of all the cases that require the more lengthy process. Secondly, the provision for interim death certificates is made available, if that is a matter that is holding up the information, usually to enable access to the bank accounts of the deceased, the insurance opportunities and sometimes to be able to progress the distribution under estates. That information is important to get and an interim death certificate can be sought.

The delay for those awaiting an inquest—not the member for Waite's constituent, who does not appear to be waiting specifically on this area—is a matter that is determined entirely by the Coroner as to what inquest they do. Some are mandated, obviously, like deaths in custody and the like, and some go to a full hearing in relation to that. The act sets out quite clearly what has to have a level of inquiry.

However, there is a significant discretion on behalf of the Coroner to undertake inquests in relation to other matters or patterns of death, and it may well be that the Coroner, as he has on other occasions, looks at a pattern in deaths, such as the number of aged people who die during hot weather, for example, which is one that was done in recent years. I would expect that ultimately the Coroner will look at deaths in South Australia in relation to the potential comorbidity around COVID deaths.

Certainly, at the moment, he is keeping a check on all deaths in relation to the insidious situation with COVID-19 and is I think almost daily reporting to the Chief Psychiatrist to ensure that we are monitoring any deaths that may arise out of someone taking their own life during this time. So there is a lot of extra work being done.

The Coroner's report has been tabled—in fact, I think I tabled it yesterday here in the parliament—and that sets out the current backlog in relation to cases that are waiting to be heard. I am about to do the comparison with the last couple of years, but I have done the previous couple of years. There has been a reduction. We have a new Coroner, but it's not necessarily because Mr David Whittle is the new Coroner. He has certainly been able to achieve that, but during COVID a number of the magistrates who were unable to undertake their court work assisted the government in a number of other ways, and one of them was to assist in the Coroner's backlog of cases that had accumulated that simply required a documentary assessment.

Those files I understand were delivered to the magistrates and were able to provide assistance to deal with the backlog in relation to those matters—that is, document assessments. For the benefit of members who do not know this, all magistrates are also deputy coroners, so they have a capacity to be able to undertake that work. It has been an unusual year, but it seems, on the face of it, that there has been a reduction in the outstanding cases.

On the specific point in relation to death certificates, an interim death certificate can be available. If the member has any further questions on behalf of the constituent I am happy to follow it up for him.