Last updated 20 January 2022
As part of the coronial system’s commitment to learning how similar incidents can be prevented in future, a framework has been created within the Coroners Act 2003 (Qld) (Coroners Act) for reporting deaths that occur in certain or unusual circumstances. These are known as ‘reportable deaths’.
Types of reportable deaths
A death is a reportable death if (s 8 Coroners Act):
- the person’s identity is unknown
- the death was violent or unnatural
- the death happened in suspicious circumstances
- a cause-of-death certificate has not been issued and is unlikely to be issued
- the death was related to health care
- the death occurred in care, in custody or as the result of police operations.
Deaths from natural causes, such as a disease or old age, are not reportable to a coroner.
In practice, coroners or coronial registrars are often contacted by medical practitioners or funeral directors to enquire whether a particular death is a reportable death.
Even if the death has not occurred in suspicious circumstances, if the identity of the deceased is unknown, it must be reported (s 8(3)(a) Coroners Act). Identification of the deceased is important for a number of reasons, including for the family’s wellbeing, public health and safety, and where circumstances exist that may be related to a criminal or civil liability for the death.
Violent or otherwise unnatural deaths
A violent or unnatural death is one that occurs because of an accident, suicide or homicide, rather than from natural causes such as a heart attack or an illness. An unnatural death could involve:
- intoxication with chemicals (e.g. alcohol, drugs, poisons)
- deprivation of air, food or water (e.g. asphyxia, drowning, dehydration, starvation)
- physical factors (e.g. injury, trauma, fire, cold, electricity, radiation).
Generally, deaths resulting from lifestyle diseases, such as cirrhosis in alcoholics and industrial deceases such as mesothelioma in asbestos workers, are not considered to be unnatural.
A death is still reportable even if there has been a delay between a death and the incident that caused it. For example, if a person sustains injuries in a motor vehicle accident and dies from those injuries many months later, their death will be reportable to a coroner.
A death occurs in ‘suspicious circumstances’ if a homicide has occurred or may have occurred. Suspicious deaths will also be reportable as unnatural deaths where it is clear that the death has happened unnaturally, but it is not yet clear whether another person has been involved.
Cause-of-death certificate is unlikely to be issued
If a doctor can determine that a person has died from natural causes, they can issue a cause-of-death certificate. If a doctor cannot (or will not) express an opinion on the probable cause of a person’s death, they must report the death to the coroner. This type of reportable death is the most common type of death reported to Queensland coroners.
The definition of ‘health care’ is very broad and includes any goods and services that are provided for the benefit of human health such as dental, medical, surgical, diagnostic or other health-related procedures and medication (s 10AA(5) Coroners Act).
A death is a health-care-related death if:
- the health care, or a failure to provide health care (including failure to treat or diagnose, clinical or medication incidents and errors) caused or contributed to the death and
- before the health care was provided, an independent appropriately qualified clinician would not have reasonably expected the health care to cause or contribute to the death.
Death in care
The Coroners Act recognises the special vulnerabilities of certain groups of people that are cared for by others, by making their deaths reportable to the coroner regardless of what the cause of their death might have been. A death in care will occur if the deceased (s 9 Coroners Act):
- had a disability and was a resident of certain types of supported accommodation or was receiving high-level support under the National Disability Insurance Scheme
- had a cognitive or intellectual disability, and was subject to treatment under the Forensic Disability Act 2011 (Qld) as the result of a forensic order by the Mental Health Court
- was subject to involuntary mental health assessment or treatment under the Mental Health Act 2016 (Qld) and was either being taken to, or detained in, an authorised mental health service
- was a child in the care or under the guardianship of the state under the Child Protection Act 1999 (Qld).
Death in custody
When a person is in custody, there is an inherent power imbalance between that person and the officer detaining them. Due to this, a death in custody is a reportable death, and occurs if a person dies while in custody, trying to escape custody or while trying to avoid being put into custody (s 10 Coroners Act).
A person will be in custody when they are detained by a police officer, corrective services officer, court officer or other law enforcement personnel, or are under arrest or under the authority of a court order or state or Commonwealth legislation.
Death in the course of police operations
Deaths that occur outside of the custody context but involve police operations are also reportable (s 9(3)(h) Coroners Act). For example, if a bystander is killed during a police motor vehicle pursuit, this death would be reportable.
Although not specifically included as a category of reportable deaths under the Coroners Act, if there is reason to suspect that a person has died in suspicious or unnatural circumstances, but the body has not yet been found, the state coroner should be notified. In practice, where a person’s whereabouts are unknown, the person’s relatives or friends usually report the missing person to police, who in turn notify the Missing Persons Unit that commences an investigation.