Nicholas Jones is a New Zealand Herald political reporter.

Coroner Act reforms: Media can now report 'suspected suicide'

Justice Minister Amy Adams says the coronial system would be made more efficient, and more responsive to the needs of grieving families. Photo / Marty Melville
Justice Minister Amy Adams says the coronial system would be made more efficient, and more responsive to the needs of grieving families. Photo / Marty Melville

New rules on media reporting of suicides have passed into law.

A law change passed today will enable media to report a death as "suspected suicide" before a coroner's inquiry was completed, if the facts support that conclusion.

Media advocates and legal experts had wanted the changes to go further, saying social media had a bigger influence on copycat behaviour than newspapers or broadcasters.

However, that was rejected by the Justice and Electoral Committee, which pointed to advice from the Director of Mental Health.

The director said media could play a positive role in suicide awareness, but there was also strong evidence that reporting of suicide methods could "popularise" these methods.

The committee also put forward an amendment that bans media from reporting any information about a suicide, including the location, which could suggest the method of death.

That and other reforms to the Coroners Act have today passed the third and final reading 88 to 32 votes, with the only opposition from Labour.

Speaking in Parliament, Justice Minister Amy Adams said the coronial system would be made more efficient, and more responsive to the needs of grieving families, including returning bodies as soon as possible.

On the new rules around reporting of self-inflicted deaths, Ms Adams said she acknowledged concerns over freedom of expression.

"I believe this is a justified limitation. Especially in light of the overseas experience of the kinds of media reporting that can occur in the absence of restrictions.

"My officials have highlighted a recent example of media reporting of a 13-year-old school girl's tragic suicide in the UK. The reporting ... appeared in a respected British broadsheet, but nonetheless featured detailed descriptions of the circumstances and method, as well as prominent photograph of the site where the suicide occurred."

Labour's justice spokeswoman Jacinda Ardern said there were aspects of the legislation that the party could simply not support.

Ms Ardern said the law change narrowed what a coroner was able to make recommendations on.

"If this Bill was really about just trying to make the system more efficient, it's not at the point that a coroner is writing recommendations that really we are seeing a lag in processing."

Labour also viewed the changes as a "lost opportunity", Ms Ardern said. It wanted the law changed to compel a written response from people or organisations who are the subject of a coroner recommendation.

The law change will also remove a requirement for coroners to hold an inquest if a person died in official care or custody.

Instead, the coroner would have discretion over whether they started an inquest, a change which the Government says will reduce unnecessary investigations.

Labour say that change is a backwards step, saying the removal of mandatory inquests was particularly troubling when it came to deaths of children in Child Youth and Family (CYF) care or in prison.

The Coroners Amendment Bill was supported by National, the Green Party, NZ First, the Maori Party, Act and United Future.

- NZ Herald

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