June 30, 2022

Partial delivery for whānau stuck in the coronial system

Written By
Corinda Taylor

Life Matters is very pleased to see that Budget 2022 delivered a package of investment to improve the coronial system and reduce delays for grieving families and whānau. It is a crucial but small change in helping to ensure a speedier outcome for coronial cases. However, there is much more work to be done for suicide bereaved whānau who find themselves in this position for the first time in their lives- having to negotiate through a minefield of the unknown while in a state of distress and vulnerability. It is an impossible task- even for highly competent people who are very able under normal circumstances, especially when they have no legal knowledge or experience. We need to protect the rights of suicide bereaved whānau in Aotearoa New Zealand so that they are well supported throughout the coronial processes.

It is obvious that the justice system is not coping and that suicide-bereaved families and whānau are facing many obstacles to find answers after the death of a loved one. Many of those bereaved struggle to navigate this unfamiliar territory without any support and the justice system is stacked against families who are often further traumatised by complicated and brutal processes. The emotional toll is simply too high on the bereaved. When bereaved are faced with legal jargon that is hard to understand, and yet are expected to deliver submissions at the same standard as expert lawyers who specialise in coronial work, then something is seriously wrong. The inequalities of representation must be adjusted so that all parties are represented equally, and the processes must be fair so that the truth doesn’t get papered over.

Spurred on by her own experience, Corinda Taylor delivered a petition in December 2019 to the House of Representatives to urge the Ministry of Justice to appoint more coroners, to introduce free legal representation for all suicide-bereaved families and whānau, provide funding to suicide-bereaved families and whānau for specialist legal representation and expert witnesses equivalent to that of any state bodies, public authorities, and corporate bodies represented, and noted that 3,834 people have signed an online petition in support of this request.

Corinda Taylor and a team from Life Matters spoke to the petition at the Justice Select Committee in May 2021. Their appearance resulted in a flurry of media attention with committee members expressing great interest.

In May 2022 the Budget delivered a package of investment to improve the coronial system and reduce delays for grieving families and whānau. Hon Aupito William Sio announced that four new permanent Coroners are to be appointed, seven Coronial Registrar roles and four Clinical Advisor roles are planned to ease workload pressures.

However, the rigidity of capping these appointments means that there is no flexibility to consider population growth and an increase of cases. Unfortunately, this budget didn’t deliver on better emotional or other support for suicide bereaved whānau. We will continue to advocate on this issue.

In May 2022, urgent and long overdue legislation was passed in Parliament. See first reading, second hearing and third hearing.

While some may argue that it is a significant win for bereaved, only a small part of the problem was addressed and it is clear that the overall process is not well understood by those who passed this legislation. This legislation will make no difference to bereaved families who are not legally represented, do not have their own expert witness, or are not emotionally supported. Part of the delays are caused by the legal expectations placed on bereaved. As some will rightfully point out this is not only unfamiliar territory but a precarious situation many bereaved find themselves in.

Further work needs to address this inequality in the justice system and more support must be given to bereaved. As such, Corinda has been invited to be part of the Steering Group that is leading the review of the investigative processes following suspected suicides. The review was recommended by He Ara Oranga, the Government Inquiry into mental health and addiction, and is a specific action in the national suicide prevention action plan, Every Life Matters - He Tapu te Oranga o ia Tangata.

The review will provide opportunities for the voices of whānau, families and communities to have their say on what a system that validates the impact of suicide and supports healing looks like. The focus of the review is to work alongside whānau and families who have been bereaved by suicide to understand their experiences and design recommended changes to the current system that best support the well-being of those who have lost loved ones to suicide.

KPMG has been contracted by the Suicide Prevention Office to manage the review, and Carla Na Nagara, ex-coroner and ex-director of the Suicide Prevention Office, has been contracted by KPMG to support this work.

Life Matters continues to advocate for the bereaved who face unrealistic expectations placed on them by a Justice system which is unforgiving and cruel during a time when they are vulnerable and grieving a significant loss. We need more and better support.

Ngā mihi maioha | Kind regards

Corinda Taylor

PHOTO: Life Matters Suicide Prevention Trust founder Corinda Taylor provides some sobering numbers to Parliament’s justice select committee, flanked by trustees Clare Curran and Ben Nevell. PHOTO CREDIT: PARLIAMENT