Second Reading Speech by SMS Assoc Prof Ho Peng Kee on Coroners Bill
19 May 2010 Posted in Parliamentary speeches and responses
Mr Speaker, Sir, I beg to move, “That the Bill be now read a Second time.”
The provisions on Coroner’s Inquiries are currently found in the Criminal Procedure Code or “CPC”. This Bill is a result of our review of the CPC. Like the CPC, public feedback was sought through a Consultation Paper on an earlier draft of the Bill over a period of four weeks last year. Useful feedback was received, some of which have been incorporated in the Bill now before the House.
In terms of presentation, other jurisdictions such as the United Kingdom, Hong Kong, New Zealand and Australia have also enacted standalone Coroner’s legislation. Substantively, the proposed changes will update our coronial system, more clearly defining its role and strengthening its procedures so that it will better serve the public interest.
This Bill contains three key proposals. First, the Bill changes the present fault-finding nature of a Coroner’s Inquiry to a fact-finding one. Second, the Bill widens the technical expertise available to the Coroner. Third, the Bill re-scopes the Coroner’s jurisdiction, giving it a clearer focus.
Key Provisions of the Bill
- Shift to a fact-finding inquiry
- Let me first elaborate on the shift to a fact-finding inquiry. The current regime under the CPC requires the Coroner to hold an inquiry to determine the circumstances under which the deceased came by his death and also whether any person is criminally concerned in the cause of the death.
- Under the Constitution, it is the Public Prosecutor who decides whether or not a person should be prosecuted. There is therefore no need for the Coroner to come to any conclusion on criminal responsibility in a Coroner’s Inquiry. The PP may take cognizance of the Coroner’s findings of fact in deciding whether or not to prosecute.
- Hence, Clause 27 of the Bill states that the purpose of an inquiry into the death of any person is to inquire into the cause of and circumstances connected with the death. The Coroner will focus on ascertaining the facts and circumstances behind a death, instead of apportioning blame . Other jurisdictions such as United Kingdom, New Zealand, Australia and Hong Kong have also adopted such a fact-finding approach.
- Widening of technical expertise
- The second key proposal of the Bill is to widen the technical expertise available to the Coroner. This will be especially useful in cases involving medical negligence where medical and other technical expertise may be tapped by the investigators and the Coroner.
- Hence, Clause 4 empowers the Chief Executive of the Health Sciences Authority to appoint any pathologist as a forensic pathologist. Clause 16 provides that a Coroner or the PP may, if he considers it appropriate to do so, direct a forensic pathologist to investigate the cause of and circumstances connected with the death.
- In addition, as the present law does not provide for the appointment of assessors, Clause 32 gives the Coroner the discretion to appoint up to two assessors with skill and experience in the matter to which the inquiry relates to assist him in the hearing of any inquiry. This approach of leveraging on lay expertise has also been adopted in other bodies such as the Strata Titles Board. A similar clause is found in the Subordinate Courts Act and Supreme Court of Judicature Act.
- To facilitate investigation and any subsequent inquiry, Clause 8 imposes a duty on persons in charge of hospitals, clinics or places of official custody to preserve the deceased’s medical and healthcare records. Failure to comply, without reasonable excuse, is an offence.
- Coroner’s Jurisdiction
- The third key proposal of the Bill re-scopes the Coroner’s jurisdiction, giving it a clearer focus. Clause 24 first sets out the current position where the Coroner has jurisdiction to hold an inquiry where a body is found in Singapore or death occurs in Singapore. It then goes on to extend the Coroner’s jurisdiction to cases where the cause of death occurs in Singapore or where death occurs or results from an occurrence on board a Singapore-registered civilian vessel or aircraft. An example is where a person dies on board an SIA flight or where a person dies as a result of something he ingests during an SIA flight. In the above situations, other than the one where the body is found in Singapore, the Coroner will have jurisdiction to conduct an inquiry into the death even without there being a body, for instance if the body was destroyed.
- I must add, however, that even though the Coroner may have jurisdiction, in some cases, such as when death occurs on a Singapore registered ship that is berthed in a foreign port, the Police will still not have the powers to conduct investigations abroad. If the Coroner decides to hold an inquiry, Police may have to seek the assistance of their foreign counterparts.
- Sir, Clause 25 sets out when it is mandatory or discretionary for a Coroner to hold an inquiry. The approach we have adopted is consistent with the approaches taken in other jurisdictions such as Hong Kong, New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia and British Columbia where the respective Coroners legislation stipulates the circumstances in which an inquiry is mandatory or discretionary. This approach will result in a more efficient use of resources and better serve the public interest, by, for example, enabling the Coroner to focus the Court’s resources on the more complex cases.
- Under Clause 25(1), an inquiry ismandatory for any death which occurs in Singapore where a person dies while in official custody, where the death is the result of capital punishment, where the Public Prosecutor so requires under Clause 26, or where death occurs in Singapore in any of the circumstances set out in the Third Schedule. These would constitute the majority of reportable deaths such as medical treatment-related deaths; deaths by unknown causes or that occur under suspicious circumstances or caused or suspected to be caused by an unlawful act or omission; deaths of persons whose identities are unknown, deaths from law enforcement operations, deaths involving a public vehicle or commercial transport vehicle and deaths in any workplace or as a result of any accident at a workplace. The list of reportable deaths is set out in Schedule Two.
- For the rest of the reportable deaths, Clause 25(2) provides that the Coroner may decide not to hold an inquiry if he is satisfied that the death was due to natural causes and that it is unnecessary to do so, or if he is satisfied that there is no public interest to do so. An example of a situation where there is no public interest to hold an inquiry would be a suicide or accidental fall where the facts are clear and the family does not request for an Inquiry to be held. As such, in deciding whether or not to hold an inquiry, a Coroner may take into account a range of factors such as the desire of any member of the immediate family of the deceased for an inquiry, whether the death had occurred outside Singapore, and whether an investigation into the death has been conducted outside Singapore . When a Coroner decides not to hold an inquiry, he has to report the facts to the Public Prosecutor, stating his reasons for not doing so. If the Public Prosecutor is of the view that an inquiry ought to be held, he can require the Coroner to hold one.
- In any case, the Police will investigate all instances of reportable deaths. In the event that no inquiry is held, as per current practice, a Certificate of the Cause of Death will still be issued, based on the evidence before the Coroner.
Other Provisions of the Bill
- Finally, let me highlight some other provisions of the Bill.
- Presently, Coroners are appointed under section 10 of the Subordinate Courts Act. The appointment provision has been moved from the Subordinate Courts Act to Clause 3(1), which provides for the appointment of a State Coroner and Coroners by the President, on the recommendation of the Chief Justice. There is no change to the appointing authority. There is also no change in the qualifications of a Coroner who, under Clause 3(2), has to be a Magistrate or District Judge appointed under the Subordinate Courts Act. In the case of the State Coroner, he must be a District Judge appointed under the Subordinate Courts Act. Under Clause 3(3), the State Coroner is charged with the general administration of the Coroners Act.
- Sir, Clause 5 provides that a person who becomes aware of a reportable death is obliged to make a police report as soon as reasonably practicable. Failure to do so, without reasonable excuse, is an offence. An example of a reasonable excuse would be if the person knew that another person had already reported the death. As mentioned earlier, the list of reportable deaths is set out in the Second Schedule. The coronial systems in New South Wales and Victoria also impose the duty to report deaths which are reportable deaths. Failure to do so is a criminal offence. We believe that this will further improve our coronial system and better serve the public interest.
- Lastly, the Bill makes related amendments to the Private Hospitals and Medical Clinics Act or “PHMCA”. The amendments to the PHMCA arising from the proposed changes to the Coroner’s Bill will enable the existing mortality reviews that are already in practice at public and private hospitals to be enhanced and extended to other healthcare institutions.
- Sir, I beg to move.
Last updated on 25 Nov 2012