The Coroners Act is worthy of study
by Eusi Kwayana
May 19, 2002
Articles on stuff
The place of an inquest in our system is not properly represented by some spokespersons, nor is it properly represented in current practice. If the law has been interpreted by some judicial decision, the learned profession will let us know.
The Coroners Act dates from 1887. It was most recently amended in 1972.* Its culture was once entrenched socially, although we know that there have been serious lapses for some decades. It will be better to describe as best I can the act as it stands without drawing any direct political conclusions at this point. Readers will then not be hindered in a clear understanding of those provisions described.
Under the Coroners Act, every magistrate of a magisterial district in Guyana is a coroner.
"'Coroner' means the magistrate of the magisterial district in which an unnatural death occurs, or, if that magistrate cannot conveniently or speedily be found, or is unable to act, the nearest justice of the peace who is able to act." Coroners are concerned with unnatural deaths.
The scheme of the act is that when an unnatural death occurs, the police must report the death to the coroner, who can also take notice of such an event, whatever the source of information. A review of the act will raise questions regarding vaunted professions of holding to the Rule of Law.
The spirit of the act is that things should move fast. For example, if a coroner is available, this official will, on studying the report, make certain decisions, the first being whether to request a medical officer to examine the body in a post-mortem examination. For best results, as Dr Edward Simon disclosed in a TV appearance during April this year, the doctor should see the body "where it is lying." After that, the doctor may "extend" the post mortem to dissection of the body and examination of the contents of the stomach in certain cases.
Burial of the body is an issue for the coroner. It arose immediately when keeping the body was not possible. Now there may be more time than then for such a decision. It is the coroner mainly who must authorise the burial; in the case of an unnatural death, so long as the post mortem, if ordered, has been satisfactory by coroner standards. In places where there is no resident coroner, or no nearby coroner, the Commissioner of Police or the local police may authorize burial. The first alternative to the magistrate, however, is "the nearest Justice of the Peace who is able to act," who is then, by definition, a coroner. The Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) is not a prime mover in inquests, but when there is failure to hold a necessary inquest or enquiry, the DPP can order the coroner to hold one.
Whenever the coroner authorizes the burial of the body without the holding of an inquiry or an inquest, the coroner is bound to make a full report of all the facts to the Director of Public Prosecutions.
Clearly our laws have for some time held the right to life to be basic and fundamental, if not sacred. The DPP's role is one of oversight of the coroner in the matter of inquests and other procedures following an unnatural death.
The DPP seems to have in this regard certain powers. The DPP can order a coroner to hold an inquest, although the coroner did not think it necessary. The DPP can also order that an inquest or enquiry, seen as inadequate, be held again, or that it be proper.
Both the coroner and the DPP have the power in certain circumstances, to order that a body be exhumed.
At the risk of being misunderstood, I have to say that this remedy or safeguard is available only in burials.
The most popular misunderstanding is the widespread belief that if there is an inquest, or if an inquest is promised, even by some unauthorized persons like the Secretary of the Cabinet, then there can be no murder charge. The act does not seem to be aware of this rule, as it provides for the relative places of inquest and preliminary enquiry. If an inquest is in progress and the responsible officer informs the coroner that a person has been accused of having caused the death in question, then the coroner is required to suspend the inquest. The DPP has some powers in this regard.
Section 29 of the act provides very clearly that if a person is accused of having caused the death of a person who is the subject of the inquest, the accused person shall have the right to cross- examine witnesses including the medical officer who performed the post-mortem examination. With this provision, it is hard to tell how the fiction arose that the process is either a murder charge or an inquest. Scrutiny of this practice seems to be in order. At the end of an inquest, the coroner has the duty of inviting an accused person present to make a voluntary caution statement. Such a statement has a far better chance of being 'free and voluntary' than those made in the privacy of police stations.
The Coroners Act is worthy of study and discussion. Next to the laws prohibiting murder, and the right of the police and others to prosecute, it is a ready bulwark of the Right to Life.
It comes after the unfortunate fact, but it is a signal that the state will not take life lightly.
Since an inquest does not override the right of the state or any other person to prosecute in the case of a loss of life, the promise of an inquest must be placed in proper perspective.
A most responsible step was taken when Gregory Smith was charged with the murder of Walter Rodney in spite of the fact that an inquest had found his death to be accidental and six years after a magistrate had rejected a private prosecution of the same suspect.
* Chapter 4:03, Laws of Guyana 1973 edition.