Autopsies and inquests
Dealing with the Coroner’s Court after a death through an inquest or an autopsy is a new experience for most people.
This information will help you to understand ways of dealing with some of the issues that can arise after a death when the coroner is involved.
- what is the role of the coroner
- what is an autopsy
- what is an inquest
- rights in the coronial process
- the powers of next of kin concerning autopsies
- if you can see the body while the Coroner is investigating.
What is the role of the Coroner?
The State Coroner has responsibility for investigating all reportable deaths and, where appropriate, arranging autopsies, examinations and inquests.
The Coroner carries out their functions under the Coroners Act 1996 (WA).
What is an autopsy?
An autopsy is a step-by-step external and internal examination of a body by a doctor for the purpose of investigating the cause of death. It is sometimes called a 'post mortem'.
What is an inquest?
An investigation into a reportable death may or may not include an inquest. An inquest is a formal court hearing conducted by the Coroner into a reportable death.
At an inquest into a death, the Coroner tries to determine the identity of the deceased, how the death occurred, the actual cause of death, and any other specific details that are needed to register the death with the Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages.
What deaths must be reported to the Coroner?
Any death can be unexpected. Even if a person had been regularly seeing a doctor for an illness, their death may need to be investigated if it was not expected at the time they died.
Even when the cause of death seems clear, the Coroner still needs to find out what happened. Identifying what contributed to an accident provides important information to families and allows preventative measures to be recommended.
Some examples of when a death must be reported to the Coroner for investigation are:
- the person died unexpectedly
- the person died from an accident or injury
- the person died in a violent or unnatural way
- the person died during or as a result of an anaesthetic
- the person was 'held in care' immediately before death
- a doctor has been unable to sign a death certificate giving the cause of death, or
- the identity of the person who has died is not known.
The definition of 'held in care' is broad. It includes people in police custody, people in prison, involuntary patients in psychiatric institutions, young people in detention, and children and young people in the care of the Department of Communities.
Who has rights in the coronial process?
The Coroners Act gives rights to several categories of people. The categories are not defined, except for the senior next of kin.
The senior next of kin is essentially the closest family member to the deceased at the time of death, out of all possible family members or representatives of the deceased. The Coroners Act lists the possible next of kin in order of seniority: current married partner or de facto partner, adult children, the deceased's parents and adult siblings.
If there are no family members as set out under the law, the senior next of kin can be an executor named in the will or a person who was a personal representative of the deceased immediately before the death. If none of these people are available, it can be a person nominated as an emergency contact by the deceased.
Interested persons have rights of appearance at an inquest. The Coroner may list interested persons, but there may be others.
What are the powers of next of kin about autopsies?
The senior next of kin has the following powers:
- a right to request that an autopsy examination be performed
- a right to object to an autopsy examination and obtain information on how to make an objection
- a right to request an independent doctor be present at the autopsy
- if tissue is to be removed from the deceased's body because of their written permission, the right to view that written permission, and
- unless prohibited under the deceased's written instructions, to give written informed consent in the prescribed form specifying the tissue which may be removed and the purpose (therapeutic, medical, teaching or scientific) for which the tissue may be removed by the doctor or pathologist undertaking the autopsy.
If a finding has not been made within 21 days after an investigation of a death involving an autopsy examination, the Coroner must provide written information on that examination to any of the next of kin unless it is not practicable to do so.
Can I see the body?
The next of kin can view the body if the Coroner is investigating. Arrangements will be made for the deceased person to be taken to a mortuary where they may be viewed by the next of kin.
Legal Aid WA does not give advice about coronial matters.
- The Coroners Court of WA has more information on inquests, autopsies and the counselling service within the Office of the State Coroner.
Reviewed: 4 October 2022