If it seems that the person took their own life, a coroner's inquiry will have to be held. A coroner holds an inquiry to find out more about who the person was, and where, when and how they died.
Most suicide inquiries are completed in chambers by the coroner (called a ‘hearing on the papers’) without an inquest or anyone else present. At a hearing on the papers, the coroner makes a finding after reading all the evidence.
If the coroner needs to hear from witnesses in person, they will hold a hearing in court. This is called an inquest. These are usually open to the public. Anyone may come, including the media. After the inquest, a coroner will write up their finding.
In both types of inquiry, family or whānau are able to contribute details about the person who died by sending information to the coroner. This might include an explanation of who they were in life and events that took place before their death. These details can help the coroner understand who the person was, and what was going on for them. Knowing what to say or write can be a complex task. There may be a lot of information to organise. If you need support, ask someone you trust to help you do this. You can also ask Victim Support for assistance, or contact Coronial Services staff for more information.
When the coroner’s inquiry is complete, they will release a finding. It will include who the person was, and where, when and how they died. The coroner might also make comments or recommendations in their finding to help prevent similar deaths in future.
The family or whānau will be sent a copy of the coroner’s finding, and a copy may be sent to others, including media. A finding is a public document, and any member of the public can request copies.
Managing the coronial process
The coronial process is managed by the Coronial Services of New Zealand, Purongo O te Ao Kakarauri.
It’s important to know that the immediate family of the person who died have the right to be kept informed and given certain documents relating to the coronial process.
The duty coroner’s office manages the case from the time the police report the death to them, until the time the body is released from the mortuary. They’ll tell you what’s happening with the post mortem and/or body tissue samples, and when the body will be released from the mortuary.
A coronial services case manager can assist with any inquiries and if necessary, communicate with the coroner on the whānau or family’s behalf.
Anyone in the family or whānau can get in touch with a coronial services case manager and ask to be kept informed about the process. It may help to nominate one family or whānau member to act on behalf of the family.
Coronial services also work to ensure that the cultural and spiritual needs of a whānau are met. You can contact your coronial case manager to discuss any cultural or spiritual needs that you would like taken into account during the inquiry process.
For Māori whānau, an iwi liaison police officer is available to liaise on their behalf with the Coroner’s office. Victim Support can also assist whānau and friends by liaising with the coroner over these matters.
The coronial process can take some time to complete. It may take one to three years before the final report is issued. This long waiting time can be difficult for whānau and families to cope with. They may be waiting to hear what the coroner has to say, and may feel like the grieving process has paused while they wait for the report.
If you’re waiting to hear from a coroner and would like to know what’s happening with a coronial report, get in touch with your coronial case manager.
More information about the coroner’s process is available in the booklet When someone dies suddenly: A Guide to Coronial Services in New Zealand. This is available online or from the district court, the police, your funeral director, the Ministry of Justice or Victim Support.
If you would like to get in touch with coronial service staff, including coronial case managers, a list of local offices and contact details can be found on the coronial services website.