Last updated 20 January 2022
It can be extremely concerning for families when a loved one has disappeared, but their body has not been or cannot be located. In Queensland, the coroner’s ability to investigate missing persons is limited to situations where:
- there is reason to suspect a person is dead, and that the death was reportable as determined by the state coroner
- the Attorney-General has directed that the suspected death be investigated by a coroner.
Generally speaking, missing persons are first reported to the Queensland Police Service Missing Persons Unit and, if a death is suspected, the state coroner is notified. Before concluding that a person is dead, a coronial investigation may be commenced to explore whether sufficient evidence can be obtained to exclude the possibility that the missing person has assumed another identity. It may be useful to conduct checks with the Australian Taxation Office, Centrelink, Medicare, financial institutions, interstate registries of births deaths and marriages, Australian or overseas police services and immigration authorities. Family, friends, treating doctors and co-workers may be able to shed light on whether the disappearance was staged.
Case Study: Daniel Morcombe
On 7 December 2003, Daniel Morcombe (13 years old) disappeared while he was waiting alone for a bus in his local area. Following five years of unsuccessful police investigations that had failed to locate his body, Daniel’s parents called for a coronial inquest into his disappearance (see Inquest into the disappearance and death of Daniel James Morcombe (2019) 2009/1210).
As a person of interest, Brett Cowan was called to give evidence at the inquest. Cowan’s implausible account caused police to commence an undercover operation. During the operation, Cowan confessed and took undercover police to the place where he had assaulted and killed Daniel.
As a result of the evidence obtained during the operation, on 13 March 2014, Cowan was found guilty of murder, indecent dealing with a child and interference with a corpse, and was sentenced to life imprisonment.
Despite Cowan’s imprisonment, Daniel’s parents called for the coroner to reopen the inquest, specifically relating to how evidence is examined by police. Daniel’s parents highlighted how the family members of the deceased can have a significant impact on the conduct and recommendations of an inquest.
The inquest into Daniel’s death also shows that a coronial inquest can proceed without any evidence of the deceased’s remains. Further, coronial and police investigations can supplement each other and ultimately lead to a conviction and better outcomes for the public in general.
Making findings on the papers
Following any investigation, a coroner may decide it is appropriate to make findings about the death without convening an inquest, otherwise known as ‘findings on the papers’.