LawTalk shines a light on the challenging work of the Coroners Court with Chief Coroner Judge Anna Tutton. Judge Tutton highlights the progress made since the Coroners Amendment Act 2023 came into effect in April.
Chief Coroner Judge Anna Tutton sits down with LawTalk to discuss the essential and challenging work of the Coroners Court and looks to raise awareness of the role of the coroner among peers, the profession, and the community.
A coroner since 2015 and Deputy Chief Coroner since 2020, Judge Tutton was appointed Chief Coroner in November 2022. With a long career that has included work in criminal law and professional legal education, Judge Tutton is no newcomer to highly complex crisis scenarios that can tragically also involve mass fatality events, which have been well documented in New Zealand’s recent history.
In her work as a legal adviser and the manager of a legal team at New Zealand Police, Judge Tutton acted in advisory roles in relation to the Pike River Mine disaster and the Christchurch earthquakes. Her experience as a Crown prosecutor and legal adviser to Police exposed her to the work of the Coroners Court. This piqued an interest in coronial work, where Judge Tutton has now reached the top ranks.
The differences that set us apart
Judge Tutton says that while there are many similarities between the Coroners Court and other courts, the Coroners Court operates in a unique way and has a unique function.
Just like judges, coroners are qualified lawyers, appointed as judicial officers. Police inform a coroner when someone dies unexpectedly, violently or in suspicious circumstances, or when the cause of the death is unknown. The role of the coroner is to establish as far as possible the cause and circumstances of the death, and to make recommendations to reduce the chances of further deaths in similar circumstances.
The Christchurch Masjidain Attack Coroners Court inquiry has thrown the jurisdiction into the spotlight. The First Phase Coronial Inquest, which began in October and is due to run until mid-December, is the largest inquiry of its type in New Zealand with more than 140 interested parties, considerable evidence and more than 90 witnesses to be heard.
“With a long career that has included work in criminal law and professional legal education, Judge Tutton is no newcomer to highly complex crisis scenarios that can tragically also involve mass fatality events”
A distinguishing feature of the Coroners Court, as opposed to other courts, is its inquisitorial, rather than adversarial nature.
“The coroner has a dual role, both investigative and judicial. The coroner as investigator works to establish the truth – whether someone has died, who that person is, and why, how, when and where he or she died. The coroner investigates the deaths entering the jurisdiction, as well as making all the judicial decisions in relation to that investigation, and presiding over an inquest if one is held.”
Judge Tutton explains that the coronial process is a multi-disciplinary process. Coroners work closely with others involved in that process, for example pathologists and Police, but the coroner, and the Coroners Court process, are independent. “Coroners act as investigators who gather evidence themselves. As truth seekers, ultimately, we want to provide whānau with answers and increase the safety of the community by making recommendations to prevent further deaths.”
This final phase speaks clearly to the ethos of the Coroners Court which is to ‘Speak for the dead to protect the living’.
As Chief Coroner, Judge Tutton is Head of Bench. Like the Heads of Bench in other jurisdictions, she has administrative responsibilities which include contributing to the operation of the coronial system and overseeing coroners’ investigations. But because each coroner is an independent judicial officer, she has no responsibility or direct authority over the judicial work of other coroners.
The Coroners Court bench now sits 22 permanent coroners, eight Relief Coroners and eight newly appointed Associate Coroners taking the total to 38. It is a jurisdiction that reaches the country’s length and breadth and includes the Chatham Islands and the Ross Dependency.
Unique to the Coroners Court is the role of a National Duty Coroner. That means a coroner is on duty 24-hours a day, seven days a week, with the support of the National Initial Investigations Office (NIIO), which is part of the Ministry of Justice.
“Coroners’ work is not predictable. We operate 24/7. The National Duty Coroner makes all the judicial decisions in the first phase of the court’s processes – decisions around whether, or not, to accept jurisdiction of a death that is reported to us, and whether a post-mortem examination is required. The coroner has custody of the bodies in our care. This carries with it an enormous responsibility and consideration of the cultural and other needs of the families involved, as well as the public interest in the investigation.”
In May this year, Judge Tutton fronted the media alongside the Police and Fire and Emergency New Zealand outside the Loafers Lodge fire in Wellington. The role a coroner plays alongside other agencies following a mass fatality incident is not well known; assuming custody of the bodies of those who have died, even before they are recovered from the scene.
“Coroners have a specific role under the law – which includes making decisions about post-mortems, and with the assistance of the police and other specialists, ensuring that the identity of the victims is established.”
Front and centre for the Chief Coroner are the families who entrust coroners to take care of a loved one, and others affected by the deaths entering the court’s jurisdiction. At all times the body is treated with dignity and respect, and wherever possible, cultural needs are met.
“We interact with people in their darkest days. I am committed to ensuring the Coroners Court is a people-centred one, that our processes are fair, and that families and others involved in the coronial system can participate in a meaningful way.”
Coroners Amendment Act 2023
The Coroners Amendment Act 2023 addressed some of the critical issues facing the Coroners Court, notably the much-publicised backlog.
While a range of factors can affect the length of a coronial inquiry, the creation of the Assistant Coroner role afforded by the Act has meant an increase in the capacity of the Coroners Court to progress the matters before it.
Associate Coroners are expected to relieve some of the pressure on the Coroners Court by assuming Duty Coroner responsibilities and working on aged cases, enabling coroners to spend more time progressing more complex matters.
“Judge Tutton is confident that the court will be able to better meet the needs of the community with the additional coroners, Associate Coroners and Clinical Advisors together with other initiatives already in play”
In addition, Judge Tutton explains that coroners have been looking at doing some things differently, to ensure families get answers more promptly, but without reducing the quality of the work of the Court. Clinical Advisors, senior medical clinicians, have been appointed to assist in the early phases of the court’s processes, by discussing with reporting doctors whether deaths are appropriate Coroners Court matters, and by providing medical advice to coroners throughout their inquiries. It is expected that the creation of the Clinical Advisor role will help decrease the number of matters entering the jurisdiction unnecessarily and increase coroners’ access to clinical advice.
All the newly appointed Relief Coroners (who have all the powers of a coroner but have fixed term warrants) and the Associate Coroners will have been sworn in by mid-January 2024.
Judge Tutton is confident that the court will be able to better meet the needs of the community with the additional coroners, Associate Coroners and Clinical Advisors together with other initiatives already in play.
Career pathway and collegiality
An alumni of the University of Canterbury Law School, Judge Tutton’s first role was as a High Court Judge’s Clerk for the judges then resident in Christchurch. Judge Tutton speaks with gratitude of the lessons she learned from observing the late Justice Williamson. “Irrespective of their position, role or status, Justice Williamson treated everyone he encountered with courtesy, respect, and good humour. It was noticeable to me, and I determined I would try to do the same.”
Judge Tutton subsequently worked in a range of legal roles, including Crown Prosecutor, Senior Counsel at the Commerce Commission, Deputy National Director of the Institute of Professional Legal Studies, and her roles at New Zealand Police. She says her choice of roles has been dictated by her interest in people and the satisfaction of “working with people to make things better.”
Coroners come from a range of backgrounds. Many have criminal or medical law experience. Some have practised in the Coroners Court before their appointment, but many have not.
Judge Tutton says those considering seeking appointment to the Coroners Court bench need broad legal experience and ability, analytical skills, sound judgement, tenacity, cultural awareness and sensitivity and humility. “Life experience is important in a court that deals with grieving whānau and others affected by the deaths of those who come before us,” she says. Courtroom experience is important, as although fewer inquests are being conducted now, those that proceed are complex, and often involve multiple parties. “The ability to manage a courtroom to ensure procedural fairness as well as an empathetic and culturally appropriate process is essential.”
The Coroners Court bench aims to reflect and serve the diverse and multi-cultural society that reflects modern Aotearoa New Zealand. The bench has a higher number of women than in some other jurisdictions and coroners come from a range of ethnic backgrounds.
The challenging nature of much of the work and the at times anti-social hours, together with a strong sense of purpose, are factors that bind what is regarded as a tight group. There is a strong sense of collegiality amongst the coroners and a dynamic exchange of knowledge and experience.
Judge Tutton says that the broad lived and professional experience required of a coroner generally means that, like judges, coroners are appointed after decades in legal practice. Above all, coroners must like and respect people and want to contribute to the greater good.