Legal Beagle by Graeme Edgeler


Update: Coroner's investigation

My post "Breaking News: Man Shot by Police; or the $600 tweet" has been picked up in the media. Police had not previously confirmed that Mr Červeň was unarmed when shot and the news that "The Coroner has ruled that there is currently reasonable cause to believe the death was self-inflicted" is also new, although it is important to note that is "in no way a concluded view on the matter."

My guess is that a Coroner would almost never release a tentative finding in such a way, and would not have had I not sought a High Court review of the refusal to let me publish. A coroner has previously found that a police shooting death was self-inflicted, but that finding was a concluded view, released at the end of the inquiry into the death.

The odd thing is, I wasn't seeking to break actual news. I did not ask the Coroner to release information, and certainly did not expect to cause the release of even obvious preliminary findings. I just wanted to lawfully report the information that Police had provided to the media at a press conference. I thought the public had a right to know a man had been shot and killed by police (and that police had admitted this), and didn't want to break the law when I relayed this information.

I think that, when there is a Police shooting, police ought to release information like "no weapon was found on the deceased", once they have reached that view, but I was not asking or expecting the Coroner to do it for them. That's just not something Courts do.

The coverage shows one of the problems with the entire process of seeking permission to make public particulars of death. In a position where they have to give "authority" to news coverage, the Coroner may be unwilling to give authority to publish information that doesn't meet the standard of a judicial finding. But that is not the standard to which the media aspires: initial reports can be incomplete, or the media can accurately report a witness who provides a statement that turns out to be misleading. In events like a shooting death, news coverage can fairly include conflicting statements without concluding which (if any) is accurate. If coroners are to approch applications for authority to release information in the same way that they approach inquests, then the system cannot work.

In the end, I got to do more than simply release (lawfully) information that was already released, but actually got to break news, as I was released a Coronial finding not automatically made available to other media. This is odd in itself. It may be appropriate that media or the public should be able to apply for a release of preliminary findings or tentative views by a Coroner, but the way the law is written, this is a power that is limited to cases where the Coroner may be able to find a death to be self-inflicted. In other high profile cases, the way you would do this is unclear, and you wouldn't have a statutory right to go to the High Court to challenge a refusal.

I'm not particularly hopeful, but with some luck, Parliament will be able to fix this when the Coroners Amendment Bill comes up before the Committee of the Whole House. Of course, as was pointed out in the comments to my earlier post, removing the new prohibition on reporting overseas suicide bombings is probably a higher priority.

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