The Government is to appoint eight part-time relief coroners in a move aimed at reducing the backlog of coronial cases.
Justice Minister Andrew Little says the relief coroners’ main focus will be on clearing the current backlog of cases by providing support to the National Initial Investigation Office which is notified of all sudden, unexplained or violent deaths in New Zealand and operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
“The eight relief coroners will manage cases from the time police report the death until the body is released from the mortuary, making directions on how a case will proceed such as if a post mortem is required and liaising with families around cultural considerations," he says.
“The number of deaths reported to the coroner continues to increase year on year. The resourcing of the coronial system needs to be improved and these relief coroners will go a long way towards reducing how long it takes for a case to be completed."
Mr Little says the relief coroners will be funded by allocation of $7.5 million over four years from within the Ministry of Justice’s existing baselines. They will work primarily as duty coroners in part-time roles.
Coronial cases backlog
Recently Mr Little revealed that it took an average of 634 days for a coronial inquiry to be completed in the year to 30 June 2018.
Responding to written parliamentary questions from National MP Mark Mitchell, he said some deaths referred to the coroner are found to be the result of natural causes and these are closed more quickly than non-natural deaths where an inquiry is opened.
"In the 2017/2018 financial year, the average time to complete an investigation where no inquiry was necessary was 193 days," he said.
Asked how many active cases coroners had on hand, he said there are no statutory timeframes for when coronial files must be completed. At 30 April 2019 there were 4,693 active coronial cases on hand. This equated to an average of 260 cases per coroner.
Chief Coroner welcomes announcement
Chief Coroner Judge Deborah Marshall has welcomed the announcement of funding for the new positions.
"This is welcome news for our coronial services team. This will enable us to reduce the backlog of coronial cases also also to ensure our coroners and staff - who already work long and demanding hours - can work in a more sustainable manner."
Judge Marshall says the backlog of caseloads increased from 3,150 in 2014/15 to 4,089 in 2017/18. The average time to close a coronial case also increased from 311 days in 2016/17 to 245 days in 2017/18, she says.
Currently, along with managing their individual caseloads, full-time coroners share the role of Duty Coroner. This is a rotating responsibility that continues 24 hours a day a day, seven days a week, dealing with sudden deaths around the country.
"Reducing the workload for existing coroners gives them the chance to focus on what's before them and close cases that have been open for a long time. I'm pleased that we'll be able to give grieving families a quicker outcome as a result," she says.