New contracts for post-mortem services will strengthen support provided to coroners in the early stages of cases, says the Ministry of Justice, despite concerns "homicides could be missed".
From September 1, four services will provide 150 forensic and 3000 coronial post-mortem analysis for deaths each year investigated by Coroners, including suspicious and unexplained deaths.
An additional $7 million per year was secured through Budget 2018/19, which includes funding for additional forensic pathologists.
However, forensic pathologists have told Justice Minister Andrew Little the break-up of the service into four regional contracts means "homicides could be missed as a result or miscarriages of justice occur".
"A complete collapse of local coronial and forensic pathology services in some regions later this year is inevitable," their union, the Association of Salaried Medical Specialists, told Little in March.
Little told them last week he would not intervene in the restructuring, the outcome of a five-year procurement process.
The four regional contracts are with the Auckland DHB and its partner Medlab Central, conducting forensic and coronial post-mortem services from Auckland City Hospital and Palmerston North Hospital.
The Canterbury DHB with forensic and coronial post-mortem services from Christchurch Hospital.
Communio and its consortium partners Waikato DHB, Pathology Associates and Southern Community Laboratories and coronial post-mortem services from Waikato, Rotorua, Nelson, Dunedin, and Southland Hospitals, and forensic and coronial post-mortems from Wellington Hospital.
And Northland DHB and coronial post-mortem services from Whangarei Hospital.
The restructuring reverses a decision to create a single national forensic pathology service, which came into being only in 2005 after years of negotiations.
Forensic pathologist Dr Paul Morrow told the Herald 32 other pathologists handled straightforward cases such as road accidents and suicides, but were not trained to handle deaths where foul play was suspected.
"A forensic pathologist is trained specifically in post-mortem pathology - homicides, complicated natural causes, unusual causes of death," he said.
"So it's really like the GP and the specialist."
In 2016 service director Dr Simon Stables also warned that the service could not cope if the country suffered another disaster such as the 2011 Christchurch earthquake.
But, the Ministry of Justice, with support from the police and the Ministry of Health, said the new contracts sought to provide better, more consistent coronial support services.
"These new arrangements will strengthen the support provided to coroners in the early stages of progressing cases, and result in more responsive and culturally aware services to families and whānau of the deceased," Ministry of Justice chief operating officer Carl Crafar said in a statement.
"We needed to develop a more sustainable coronial service that where possible was delivered locally so that families and whānau could be closest to the bodies of their loved ones."
The new contracts provide increased funding for additional forensic pathologists, forensic trainees and an increase in remuneration to attract and retain skilled professionals, the ministry said.
Services, the ministry added, will be more consistent and reliable for coroners, who will be able to direct post-mortems to be carried out seven days a week.
The new arrangements will see an increase in forensic pathologists from 8.5 to 10, and funded forensic pathologists trainee positions going up from one to three.
The long term contracts are initially for seven years but are extendable to 13 years, the ministry said.