Finding out the Coroner is investigating a patient’s death can spark concern in the mind of a practitioner.

You may receive communication soon after the death whilst everything is fresh in your mind.  However, it can be months or even years after the patient has died when the Coroner requests information.

By this time, your recall can be very hazy.  In the absence of detailed clinical records it may be difficult to provide a comprehensive response to the Coroner’s request.

Understandably, this can leave a practitioner feeling caught off guard and potentially open to criticism.

Given the uncertain time frames and potential implications of a coronial inquiry, it is good to know what might be required if you are ever approached for information and what steps to take.

Coroner’s requests 
The coroner’s role is to investigate cause and circumstances surrounding a death and make recommendations that improve public health and safety.  Although it may sometimes feel like it, it is not about laying blame for what happened.

As part of investigating the circumstances of a patient’s death, the Coroner will collect information from practitioners involved in the care leading up to the patient’s death.  This information will assist the Coroner to decide whether they can finalise the matter without Inquest, or whether an Inquest is necessary.

Requests for information can occur in two ways.  A warrant / summons may be issued for the patient’s records.  The Coroner may also request a written statement from the practitioner detailing their care.

In most circumstances these requests will be made by police officers appointed by the Coroner to carry out the investigation. A warrant / summons must be complied with.  A police officer should produce a copy of the warrant to the health practitioner when requesting a patient’s record.

While there is no legal obligation to provide a written statement to the Coroner as part of the investigation, practitioners have an ethical obligation to assist as appropriate.  We encourage our members to assist the Coroner in performing their role.

Seek advice 
If you receive a request from the Coroner, we recommend you contact MIGA’s Legal Services team prior to providing any information to the investigating officer.

Even if your role in the patient’s care is relatively minor, it is still useful to talk it through with us.  Our solicitors regularly advise practitioners on how best to respond to Coroner’s requests and can assist members with the important task of preparing coronial statements.

Importantly, if you have any concerns about your management of a patient in the lead up to their death, contact us at your earliest opportunity so we can discuss this with you whilst everything remains fresh in your mind.

Hospital doctors 
It is important to confirm whether the hospital’s insurance covers you for coronial matters.

If you are employed by a hospital and their lawyers have been engaged to assist with the coronial process, in the majority of cases it is appropriate and preferrable for the practitioner to be represented by them.  We can talk you through the reasons why.

Generally contracted doctors (eg VMOs) are not covered through the hospital and need to seek assistance from their medical indemnity insurer.

If you have any concerns regarding your hospital representation or that a conflict of interest exists between you and the hospital, our solicitors are available to provide independent advice and input as necessary.

Inquests 
While only 1-2 percent of matters ultimately proceed to Inquest, if you are summonsed to provide evidence at an Inquest and there is a possibility that your care and treatment may be called into question, it is essential that you are represented.

This will usually involve meeting external lawyers engaged by us so that they can:

  • Consider the brief of evidence collected by the Coroner
  • Provide you with advice and guidance regarding issues which might arise at the Inquest and whether further evidence may be necessary
  • How to deal with giving evidence at the Inquest.

Some coronial matters attract the attention of the media.  This can be challenging and confronting.  When there is media interest we will advise you on how to deal with it.

Takeaways 
While in the vast majority of instances, your contact with the Coroner will not involve giving evidence at an Inquest, it is important that any information released to the Coroner is provided under the careful guidance of a lawyer.

Early notification of any concerns regarding a patient’s death will put you in the best position to seek advice while details remain fresh in your mind.

As with any medico-legal issue, well written clinical notes will assist you greatly should you ever need to respond to the Coroner.

Our legal services team is always here to help!

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