Eight relief coroners have been appointed to reduce the long backlog of cases causing emotional distress to the families of people whose deaths are sudden, unexplained or violent.

A coroner determines the cause of death in such cases through an inquest in court or "on papers", through evidence sent to the coroner.

But the number of deaths reported to New Zealand's 17 coroners is increasing each year and some families, including those of suicide-bereaved whānau, have waited more than three years for an inquest.

The Minister for Courts, Andrew Little, announced the eight part-time coroners today as the Government works to reduce the major delays in the system.

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"More relief coroners will provide more support so families aren't waiting long periods for coronial decisions affecting their loved ones," Little said.

"The relief coroners' main focus will be on clearing the backlog of cases by providing support to the National Initial Investigation Office, which is notified of all sudden, unexplained or violent deaths in New Zealand and operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

"Families have expressed frustration over the delays in coronial decisions. This extra support is aimed to reduce waiting times for grieving families."

Chief Coroner Judge Deborah Marshall has welcomed the appointment of eight, part-time duty coroners to reduce the backlog of deaths delayed by a stretched coronial service. Photo /Michael Craig
Chief Coroner Judge Deborah Marshall has welcomed the appointment of eight, part-time duty coroners to reduce the backlog of deaths delayed by a stretched coronial service. Photo /Michael Craig

The eight relief coroners would manage cases from the time police report the death until the body is released from the mortuary, making directions on how a case would proceed such as whether a post-mortem examination was required and liaising with families around cultural considerations.

"The resourcing of the coronial system needs to be improved and these relief coroners will go a long way towards reducing how long it takes for a case to be completed."

Chief Coroner Judge Deborah Marshall welcomed the money, which will be spent over four years.

"This will enable us to reduce the increasing backlog of coronial cases and also ensure our coroners and staff – who already work long and demanding hours – can work in a more sustainable manner."

The backlog of caseloads has increased from 3150 in 2014/15 to 4089 in 2017/18.

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The average time to close a coronial case has also increased from 311 days in 2016/17 to 345 days in 2017/18.

At present, full-time coroners share the role of Duty Coroner – a rotating responsibility that continues 24 hours a day, seven days a week, dealing with sudden deaths around the country.

Corinda Taylor, of Life Matters Suicide Prevention Trust, called for more coroners this week ahead of the announcement by Justice Minister Andrew Little. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Corinda Taylor, of Life Matters Suicide Prevention Trust, called for more coroners this week ahead of the announcement by Justice Minister Andrew Little. Photo / Mark Mitchell

But they do it at the same time as managing their individual caseloads, Judge Marshall said.

"Reducing the workload for existing coroners gives them the chance to focus on what's before them and close cases that have been open for a long time.

"I'm pleased that we'll be able to give grieving families a quicker outcome as a result."

The family of Ross Taylor who died in a suspected suicide in 2013, are still waiting after six years. An inquest set down for November this year.

On Thursday, grieving mother Corinda Taylor said she would take a petition to Little calling for legal aid for the families of suicide victims and more coroners to speed up the traumatic process of an inquest into the death of a loved one.

Today she also welcomed the news of help for the coronial system.

"This is great news and will hopefully help ease the workload as well as the extended pain many families face when having to wait many years for some answers."

Taylor and her husband have waited six years for their son's inquest after a Health and Disability Commissioner investigation that found serious shortcomings in Ross' care by Southern District Health Board and his psychiatrist.

"The pain and suffering having to wait that long is unacceptable so I'm delighted that more appointed coroners will reduce some of the suffering for other bereaved families and whānau."

Jane Stevens is pleased more coroners have been appointed but says there is still work to be done supporting the families of suicide victims through the coronial process. Photo / Doug Sherring
Jane Stevens is pleased more coroners have been appointed but says there is still work to be done supporting the families of suicide victims through the coronial process. Photo / Doug Sherring

Jane Stevens, whose son Nicky Stevens took his own life while in mental health care in 2015, congratulated Little on the move but said more was needed.

"Our whānau waited over three torturous years for a coronial hearing into our son's death and we know families who have had to wait far longer than that.

"The coronial system has been overstretched and underfunded for a very long time so the announcement that the Government are taking action to reduce the waiting times for coronial inquests and decisions, and have acknowledged the lack of resourcing for the coronial system, is very welcome but it is only part of the solution."

Stevens said families needed to be fully supported through such a difficult process.

"It was the most difficult period of our lives after the death of our son and there was no real support for us to deal with the stresses and costs of the inquest process.

"We congratulate Andrew Little for taking the first step but now its time to talk with families like ours and Corinda's about the provision of effective support, starting with our call for families to have access to financial support for legal costs."