From the Coroner’s court to claims in tort

I joined Rice Speir as the firm’s newest member in July this year. Having previously worked as legal counsel at the Office of the Chief Coroner, I am well-versed at explaining what the Coroner’s Court is and what a coroner does.

Coronial law – in brief

Coronial law in New Zealand is governed by the Coroners Act 2006. To be eligible for appointment as a coroner, an applicant must have held a practising certificate as a barrister or solicitor for at least five years. There are currently eighteen coroners across the country, including the Chief Coroner.

Coronial inquiries cover situations where the death is unexpected, violent or suspicious. In the course of their inquiry, a coroner, as far as possible, is required to determine:

  • that a person has died;
  • the person’s identity;
  • when and where the person died;
  • the cause of death; and
  • the circumstances of death.

A coroner may also make recommendations or comments in circumstances where they consider deaths in similar circumstances may be prevented by doing so. And they can direct that a death be examined by another investigating authority if they consider it would serve the public interest.

The jurisdiction is a busy one; in the 2017/18 year 5608 deaths were reported to the coroner with jurisdiction ultimately accepted over 3573. It is also broad, with a sometimes unexpected interaction with other areas of law. As an example, during my time in the role I assisted in the preparation of the Recommendations Recap (a quarterly summary of the latest Coronial recommendations) focused on safe boating practices, with analysis of water safety legislation, including council bylaws.

Legal and Research Counsel at the Office of the Chief Coroner

At the beginning of 2018, the legal & research counsel team was established. The team consisted of seven lawyers with the aim of providing support to the coroners. Our role saw us drafting findings for coroners, appearing at inquests and providing legal research.
The role sharpened a number of key skills which I have brought into my new position at Rice Speir. Drafting findings required a detailed approach to the analysis of all kinds of different evidence while legal research required a creative approach in a jurisdiction where commentary and case law is lacking. Appearing as counsel assisting at the Coroner’s Court provided a unique opportunity to get on my feet in court – questioning witness and expert evidence – at an early stage in my career.

The next step

Having enjoyed my time at the Office of the Chief Coroner, it was time to make a move. Following a fortuitous introduction to the partners at Rice Speir, I was excited to accept an offer to join the firm. I look forward to the ongoing challenge of adapting my skill set and the lessons learned in my previous role to my current one.

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