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Sunday, November 4, 2012

Media vs the Coroner

Section 71 of the Coroners Act 2006 is proving somewhat of an impediment to media who are anxious to report on the sudden death of high profile lawyer Greg King.
No person may, without a coroner's authority, make public any particular relating to the manner in which a death occurred if the death occurred in New Zealand after the commencement of this section; and there is reasonable cause to believe the death was self-inflicted; and no inquiry into the death has been completed.
The resulting speculation from comments posted in the NBR article regarding a highly placed legal source suggesting that Greg King took his own life, is arguably in breach of this section, depending on how widely this section is interpreted. And my own reproduction of this statement might well be too. But I want to discuss some reasons that s71 of the Coroners Act 2006 exists. 

Depending on the type of post mortem directed, it can take a Pathologist up to 8 weeks to collate the final post mortem report for the Coroner. This is because often bodily samples and fluids are taken for further testing to determine any underlying or antecedent causes contributing to the death of the deceased person. There is an assumption that directly after a post mortem examination has been conducted that a cause of death is available. This is misleading. The only report available directly after the post mortem examination is a provisional post mortem result. It is provisional because bodily fluids and samples are often sent to ESR laboratories for toxicology and histology tests, which can take around 6 weeks before those tests, are complete.

So why is this important for the highly speculated Greg King case? Because, these are some of the reasons that Coroner’s are wary about making particulars of a death publicly available, there is not enough evidence to determine the cause of death at these early stages in the Coronial process.  

There is also some confusion about self-inflicted deaths and suicides. Note, not all self-inflicted deaths will be determined as suicides. There are many instances in which a self-inflicted death may be accidental.

I am going to list some examples but I wish to make clear that I am in no way suggesting that these examples are speculative in regards to the Greg King case. They are not exhaustive examples either but are for the purpose only of distinguishing where a death may be self-inflicted but not a suicide.

  • Aspiration of vomit – occurs when highly intoxicated persons choke on their vomit in their sleep.
  • Some recreational activities such as bridge jumping resulting in death
  • Self-administered illicit drug overdoses (or substance abuse in general) or medicinal overdoses
Suicides have a very high threshold. This means that there must be substantial evidence to show that the deceased person intended that their actions would result in their death. Some deaths that appear to have intended suicide are found to be accidental deaths; this is because there may be evidence suggesting that while the initial intention may have been suicide, at some point after the action but prior to death the person’s intention changed. An example of this might be when a person overdoses on medication intending to end their life, but then calls for medical assistance.

Again, because cause of death relies not just on physical evidence of the body but also the surrounding circumstances, it is premature and therefore irresponsible reporting to speculate on matters regarding an apparent self-inflicted death when someone is not privy to all the evidence available. This is part of the importance of s71. 

Of course, the restrictions made by the Coroner may be inconvenient for an anxious media, however, the family and friends of a deceased person are entitled to accurate reporting as anything else is likely to be highly distressing during such a sensitive and tragic time. Accurate reporting does not occur when all the facts and evidence are not available, it is an injustice to the family and to the process. 

***RIP Greg King "injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere" (Martin Luther King).