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'Why This Law?': Vagaries of Jurisdiction in Coronial Reform and Indigenous Death Prevention

Australian Indigenous Law Review
Volume 12 Issue Special ed. 2 (2008)

Abstract: The coronial jurisdiction requires closer analysis if the future efficacy of Australian coronership is to be achieved, as tension exists between coronial jurisprudence, practice and possibility. As highlighted by commentators, in many senses the contemporary coronial jurisdiction is caught between the promising future of death investigation and the ad hoc trajectory of the past. This tension is clearly articulated throughout coronial jurisprudence, reforms and public debate. The article begins by discussing the move towards prevention that dominates much commentary on the contemporary role and value of the coroner. It thereafter reviews the complexities of the coronial jurisdiction in light of this evolution, as highlighted by appellate decisions and consideration of a signal case: the death of Mulrunji Doomadgee in Queensland in 2004. The case received significant media attention and the legal trajectories resulting from Mulrunji's death generated controversy following the decision by the Queensland Director of Public Prosecutions not to prosecute the police officer identified by the Acting State Coroner as causing the fatal injuries to Mulrunji. Eventually, the path this case took saw the officer become 'the only Queensland police officer who had to wait on a jury verdict on a death in custody'. Accordingly, the case illustrates that the circumstances of death matter, and this capacity to account for context is precisely what the coronial focus on death offers the community. Nonetheless, it is also a role that is required to determine oftentimes problematic 'facts'. The article explores the Mulrunji case to highlight these issues. The article then considers a key capacity of the coroner to contribute to preventing death in the community via inquests into multiple deaths. The article discusses how recent coronial inquests and subsequent findings into multiple Indigenous deaths in Aboriginal communities, in their capacity to contextualise individual deaths within a wider social and historical sphere, bring into sharp relief the systemic difficulties confronting some Indigenous communities. These recent findings in relation to multiple Indigenous deaths also reveal the frustrations of a jurisdiction increasingly seen as hamstrung in its capacity to fulfil its distinctive death prevention role. While the findings demonstrate the merits of the coronial jurisdiction, at times they also accentuate its inability to prevent further deaths occurring in similar circumstances. That this inability relates to death in Indigenous communities throughout Australia ignites some fundamental questions not only about the value of coronial law but also about larger socio-political commitments to public health in its broadest sense. These are also questions about the ways in which society institutes a response to that which often underscores preventable death: violence, poverty, mental health, safety, etc. To ask after this jurisdiction and its current effects more carefully is to approach the question 'why this law?' so as to advance both its legal and extra-legal achievements in death investigation. It is to fully recognise that a field of seeming 'narrow' compass (ie, death) is actually also about social life and activity, and to invest in it as such.

To cite this article: Bray, Rebecca Scott. 'Why This Law?': Vagaries of Jurisdiction in Coronial Reform and Indigenous Death Prevention [online]. Australian Indigenous Law Review, Vol. 12, Special ed. 2, 2008: 27-44. Availability: <;dn=724052350679763;res=IELAPA> ISSN: 1835-0186. [cited 01 Dec 15].

Personal Author: Bray, Rebecca Scott; Source: Australian Indigenous Law Review, Vol. 12, Special ed. 2, 2008: 27-44 Document Type: Journal Article ISSN: 1835-0186 Subject: Aboriginal Australians--Criminal justice system; Prisoners, Aboriginal Australian; Aboriginal Australians--Health and hygiene; Prisoners--Death; Coroners; Criminal justice, Administration of; Peer Reviewed: Yes

Database: APAFT