If the person has passed away by a Sudden Death
If a doctor is unable to determine the cause of death and issue the associated legal documentation, the death will be reported to the Coroner.
The Coroner is a legal officer appointed under the Coroners Act who has the duty to establish the cause of death in certain circumstances. In New Zealand, a death is reported to the Coroner by contacting the Police, who act as the “Coroner’s Agent”.
The Coroner may become involved when:
- a doctor is unavailable or unable to establish the cause of death
- there has been no recent consultation with a medical practitioner
- there is a sudden unexpected death
- death occurs from other than natural causes
- there is an accidental death
When a sudden death occurs, the police will be called to the scene and will take the lead in managing the situation, to begin initial enquires and arrange for the transfer of the deceased to the nearest Coroner’s Mortuary (usually located at the public hospital) for a post mortem examination. The transfer to the mortuary is usually conducted by a duty funeral director who is contracted to the police. It is important to note that you are not obliged to use the duty funeral director to conduct the funeral.
The Police will also ensure that the next of kin is notified and has support. Victim Support, may also offer to help. Victim Support are a community based organisation and are a good source of information about other community groups or agencies that can be of assistance.
When a death is reported to the Coroner, it is the Coroner’s role to establish the identity of the deceased and the cause of death. In most instances, this will be done by instructing a pathologist (a medical specialist) to examine the body. This procedure is called a post mortem examination or autopsy.
The post mortem is an external and internal examination of the body. There are some people who, for cultural or spiritual reasons, may be opposed to a post mortem being conducted. In such cases, the Corner has an obligation to consider this opposition before authorising this procedure to be conducted.
In deciding whether or not to conduct a post mortem, the Coroner will take into account the likelihood that the post mortem will reveal information about how, where and when the person died, or about the deceased’s identity, whether the death may have been caused by the actions of other people, or anything suspicious about the death.
Once the post mortem has been completed and the Coroner has established the cause of death, the body will become available to be released for the funeral. In most instances, the Coroner will only require the body for a period of approximately 24 hours. Therefore, it is important for you to contact the funeral director you wish to take care of funeral arrangements as soon as possible and they will liaise with the coroner for the release of the body.
Additionally, a Coroner may decide to hold an inquest into the death. An inquest is a formal hearing in a court of law. This is done to establish all circumstances relevant to the death. The inquest often happens months after the funeral has taken place.
The role of the Coroner is important in establishing the cause of death and has particular relevance in light of Accident Compensation Corporation (ACC) obligations in regard to accidental deaths, and assistance available to those affected by an accidental death.