Coroners are judicial officers appointed by the Governor-General under the Coroners Act 1951, the code governing the appointment, powers, and duties of coroners in New Zealand. Any fit person may be a coroner, but the practice is to appoint solicitors, where they are available. Apart from Magistrates, who are ex officio coroners, there were 90 coroners in 1963.
The function of a coroner in New Zealand is to inquire into the manner of death where a person has died a violent and unnatural death, or into a sudden death of which the cause is unknown, and in certain other cases. The coroner carries out this function by holding an inquest, but he may dispense with an inquest if he is satisfied by inquiries or a post-mortem that death is due to natural causes. An inquest normally requires a body, but if the body cannot be viewed – for instance, after a drowning – the Attorney-General may direct an inquest.
Inquests, which are open to the public save in exceptional circumstances, are held to determine the fact that a person has died, the identity of the deceased person, and when, where, and how the death occurred. Inquests are unsuitable proceedings for determining questions of liability, and coroners' verdicts are expressed so as to avoid imputing blame to anyone. In 1858 coroners were given jurisdiction, not possessed by coroners in England, to hold inquests into fires. The later availability of alternative procedures made this once convenient power unnecessary and it was dropped in 1951. Formerly coroners sat with a jury – originally of at least 12, but reduced to six in 1885 with provision for a majority verdict of four. Coroners' juries became optional in 1908, except where a Justice of the Peace acted as coroner, and were abolished in 1951.
For centuries in England the coronial inquest played an essential part in the investigation of crime. A finding of murder or manslaughter against anyone by a coroner's jury had the effect of an indictment, and this rule originally applied in New Zealand also. The creation of an efficient police force made this function unnecessary, and the defects of inquest procedure made it unjust. The Criminal Code Act 1893 provided that no one should be tried on a coroner's inquisition. Nowadays, indeed, an inquest must be adjourned if criminal proceedings may be taken as a result of the death.
by Bruce James Cameron, B.A., LL.M., Legal Adviser, Department of Justice, Wellington.