Editorial: Inquests let coroners dig for the truth

Chris Kahui. Photo / Greg Bowker
Chris Kahui. Photo / Greg Bowker

Chris Kahui was found not guilty of the murder of his twin babies. Yet a coroner has found their fatal brain injuries occurred at a time they were in his sole custody, care and control. The implication was clear enough for the young man's lawyer to try to challenge aspects of the coroner's findings becoming publicly known. They abandoned that legal battle this week, allowing the public to wonder again about the wisdom of criminal justice.

A coroner's inquest resembles justice used in some other jurisdictions and often cited as superior to the adversarial system we have inherited from Britain. An inquest aims to discover the factual cause of death. It is not primarily to find someone guilty, though coroners do not always hesitate to point their remarks strongly in that direction when sure of their ground.

They do not even need to be sure. They can reach decisions on the "balance of probabilities", which is less certain than juries in criminal trails are supposed to be when they find someone guilty "beyond reasonable doubt".

In this case the coroner, Garry Evans, said he was satisfied with his finding "to the point of being sure".

He had another advantage over the trial jury. He was able to hear and question Kahui. The right to silence does not apply in inquisitions designed to find the truth rather than test a criminal charge. Having heard Kahui, the coroner was not impressed with his credibility and said so.

The coroner's court is more satisfying than a criminal court in every respect but one - a coroner's finding against an individual carries no direct punishment. There may be consequences for the person but they are not prescribed by the law. If coroners did have the power to imprison people found responsible for death, justice would probably demand that inquests become more like criminal trials, with adversarial interrogation of witnesses and an accused's right to silence.

Coroners, after all, can be wrong. This month, another Auckland coroner, Peter Ryan, delivered an extraordinary criticism of a couple at Piha who had gone to some trouble to help a distressed teenager, Iraena Asher, on the night she disappeared.

They had taken her in - a stranger, agitated and barely coherent. When they had offered to call the police she became more agitated and they knew she was likely to bolt if they did. Many would have let her go at that point. But Julia Woodhouse and Bobbie Carroll gave her a shower, food, a bed for the night and promised to drive her home in the morning.

For that they were criticised at the inquest - first by the police, whose own response to Ms Asher's 111 calls was inadequate, then by the coroner.

A judicial mind should never be guilty of wisdom in hindsight, but even with hindsight it is hard to see what more the women could have done.

It was unfair of Mr Ryan to say they "contributed" to her death. She walked away from their help and he concluded that she most likely walked into the sea and drowned. Coroners' inquiries are most valuable in cases such as this, providing an authoritative verdict for bereaved families and the public about the likely cause of death.

But in cases that lead coroners to lay blame they should not hesitate to do so, especially if the person has been acquitted of a criminal charge. Mr Evans has given the country some sort of conclusion to the tragedy of the Kahui babies, the difficulties of the police inquiry, the conflicting accounts of the parents and a trial that left more questions than it answered. If the coroner's finding is the last word, it will do.

- NZ Herald

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