Last updated 20 January 2022
A coroner may order a doctor to perform a coronial autopsy if it is considered necessary for the investigation or in order to determine whether a baby was stillborn (s 19 Coroners Act 2003 (Qld) (Coroners Act)).
The coroner must order a coronial autopsy where a medical cause of death or the circumstances contributing to the death are not sufficiently clear and raise a reasonable doubt. If a coronial autopsy is required for some other reason, such as resolving public safety concerns, the coroner may order an external examination of the body to continue the coronial process.
Unlike coronial autopsies, clinical autopsies can be performed for medical educational or research purposes, but can only be performed with the deceased’s family’s consent.
Forms of coronial autopsies
A coronial autopsy may involve (s 19(3) Coroners Act):
- an external examination of the body
- an external and partial internal examination of the body
- an external and full internal examination of the body
- an examination of the cremated remains of the body, if the body has been cremated.
Internal examinations are expensive, invasive and cause alterations to the deceased’s body. They also expose the examiner to potential health and safety risks.
It is important that before ordering an internal examination, that the coroner (s 19(5) Coroners Act):
- takes into account any concerns raised by a family member or another person with a sufficient interest in relation to the form of the examination
- considers that the family may be distressed by an internal examination (e.g. because of cultural traditions or spiritual beliefs).
Views of family members
Like in the preliminary investigation stage, the views of the deceased’s family members will be considered prior to an autopsy being taken. If a family member is suspected as being responsible for the deceased’s death, their views will not be sought.
If, despite the concerns of the deceased’s family, the coroner decides that it is necessary to order an internal examination to make findings under s 19(6) of the Coroners Act, the coroner must give a copy of the order for autopsy and written reasons to the concerned family member. The internal autopsy will, in most circumstances, then be postponed for 24 hours to allow that family member to seek judicial review of the coroner’s decision.
As it is a requirement for the coroner to consider the views of the family member whenever practicable, if the identity of the deceased person is unknown, the coroner may order an internal autopsy without waiting for the family members to be found to express their views.
Views of people with a sufficient interest
Other people with a sufficient interest should also have their concerns considered by the coroner (s 19(5) Coroners Act). This group includes people who are involved in transporting or examining the deceased’s body, as they are likely to be exposed to infectious diseases and other risks.
Which form of autopsy will be ordered?
The coroner must order the least invasive form of autopsy that will resolve all questions about the death, and allow the coroner to make the necessary findings required under s 45(2) of the Coroners Act. When deciding what form of autopsy to order, the coroner must take into account the medical history of the deceased, as well as physical and witness evidence, and may consult pathologists with experience in forensic matters.
Aside from any testing directly ordered by the coroner, the examining pathologist is also permitted to undertake other tests if these tests are consistent with the form of the autopsy ordered by the coroner (s 23(3) Coroners Act). Blood and urine can be collected regardless of the form of autopsy (s 23(5) Coroners Act).