Being called to present before the Coroners Court proceedings can be a confronting experience and to be unexpectedly named in an investigation or as an interested party in an inquest can be even more daunting, especially when personal or business reputation are at risk.
Service providers, manufacturers or individuals may unexpectedly become involved in Coroners Court proceedings if the court considers they or their company hold evidence or may be the subject of a potentially adverse finding in an investigation or inquest. This may occur in the case of accidental or suspicious death or fire, particularly where the cause cannot be readily determined or recommendations could be made to prevent future fatalities. Coronial inquests can be wide-ranging and receiving notification from the court can come as a shock, as parties may not even have known of a possible connection with the often tragic events being investigated.
The court, in investigating deaths and fires, does not make findings of criminal guilt or civil liability, but its hearings and findings are usually public and can attract state, national and sometimes international attention.
Parke Lawyers special counsel, Roland Müller, says being named in relation to adverse findings can give rise to reputational and legal risk. For this reason, it is important to seek advice and capable legal representation with Coroners Court experience.
“Parke Lawyers has acted for clients named in Coroners Court proceedings who were rightly concerned about possible findings damaging their brand or personal reputation,” Mr Müller said.
Being found to have contributed to someone’s death can be catastrophic to a business’s reputation.
He notes that other parties under investigation often try to shift the blame. “We have had to protect clients from unwarranted allegations by third parties while assisting the court to make accurate findings,” Mr Müller said.
A lawyer’s role in coronial matters is different to other litigation. Inquests are conducted with minimal formality, limited adherence to the usual rules of evidence and are conducted as inquiries rather than as adversarial proceedings where the parties ‘fight it out’ to win a case. The court has broad discretion to manage proceedings and inform itself of relevant matters. The specific nature of proceedings combined with the sensitive subject matter requires the parties and their lawyers to take a very different approach to other civil proceedings.
With the right legal strategy, much can be done to protect parties’ interests and assist the court to interpret evidence correctly, to avoid unwarranted adverse findings and resist attempts to by other parties to shift blame.
Representing parties at coronial inquests requires a specialised approach. There are very limited rights to review coroners’ findings and it is important to help the court make the right decision. There are rarely second chances.
Mr Müller says Parke Lawyers recently represented a technician in a Coroners Court proceeding arising from the death of a person due to machine failure. The machine owner had engaged the technician to service and maintain its machines under a limited service agreement. Despite having knowledge of potential hazards, the machine owner did not engage the technician to make additional repairs or otherwise address the risk. The machine owner initially sought to blame the technician for failing to detect and address deterioration in a machine attachment.
Thorough review of the Coroner’s brief and detailed submissions to the court demonstrated that the failed component may not even have been made available to the technician to service. No deterioration would have been detected and it was beyond the scope of service.”
Early identification of these matters resulted in the machine owner abandoning any suggestion that the technician could have been responsible or could have taken any steps to prevent the failure.
Their initial attempt to attribute blame to the technician having failed, the machine owner therefore made several concessions. This removed the need for a potentially lengthy inquest and prevented further trauma for the family.
In that case, detailed analysis of the evidence not only protected the technician’s reputation but helped the Coroner and family members of the person understand what was likely to have contributed to the accident and conclude the case promptly. It also reduced the risk that the technician would be named in future litigation.
In another matter, Parke Lawyers advised members of a family, on whether to ask the Coroners Court to conduct an inquest after a preliminary indication from the court that no inquest was needed, subject to an opportunity for the family to make submissions.
It was a very difficult time for the family and our role was to provide clear legal advice on how to navigate a very confronting process, while being sensitive to the fact that the clients had lost a loved one in very traumatic circumstances.
While many coronial proceedings are resolved promptly, some matters can run for many years, with parties periodically being required to attend court or submit documents.
“We currently act for a party in the Coroners Court’s investigations arising from the Swanston Street wall collapse. Proceedings commenced in 2013 and are ongoing,” Mr Müller says.
The Coroner’s Court’s extensive investigative powers, confronting subject matter and sensitive environment can make proceedings daunting. Seeking legal advice and representation to protect your interests and reputation can be a worthwhile investment.