The following is a small part of a speech presented in Parliament yesterday by the Member for Girrawheen, Ms Margaret Quirk in relation to the Coroners Amendment Bill 2017 currently before Parliament. In this section, Ms Quirk is supporting the introduction of the law based on the premise that it will reduce delays in future coronial inquests:
MS M. QUIRK (Girrawheen) [11.54 am]: Firstly, I congratulate the Attorney General for so promptly beginning the herculean task of implementing the countless recommendations from a range of reports that were left untouched by his predecessor. As we have heard, the Coroners Amendment Bill 2017 deals with only two such recommendations of the Law Reform Commission report, but it is a start. It shows an intention to move on with the many reports that were left untouched for many years by his predecessor.
I have spoken in here in the past about the glacial speed with which Hon Michael Mischin approached law reform and the derelict manner in which he performed his important role as the former Attorney General. This is not just gratuitous rhetoric; this inertia and neglect has had real and practical consequences, not least of which is the failure to act on the Law Reform Commission recommendations on coronial practice, which were made in January 2012. The review of coronial practice in Western Australia was first referred to the Law Reform Commission for consideration by Hon Jim McGinty, a predecessor of Mr Mischin, in 2008—as I said, that was finished in 2012. Since that time, and under the stewardship of Hon Michael Mischin, we have witnessed in the Coroner’s Court increasing pressure on resources, an ageing and not-fit-for-purpose IT system, and unacceptable delays in hearing times, with some cases taking many years to resolve. These problems do not occur in a vacuum; in the meantime, grieving relatives and workmates have had to bear the additional emotional toll from the long wait for inquests and final dispositions.
As the Attorney General said in the second reading speech, this bill concerns two of the WALRC recommendations that are urgently required to assist in reducing the backlog of cases and to relieve the administrative burden and impost in non-contentious cases. The Attorney General foreshadowed that he will expeditiously address the remainder of the Law Reform Commission recommendations through the introduction of a major amending bill to the Coroners Act as a matter of priority. This gives us the rare opportunity, prior to those much-awaited amendments, to focus on some of the areas of current concern, which we hope can be addressed and incorporated in the subsequent bill.
The first concern that I raise is that of delay and the real and very practical consequences of such delay. As an example, I use the case of Department of Parks and Wildlife firefighter Wendy Bearfoot, who died in October 2012 after being trapped in a burnover in a fire that she was fighting at Black Cat Creek near Albany. The coronial inquest was not held until October 2016 and the findings of that inquest were not handed down until this year, in late June 2017. That time frame covered five fire seasons. It is concerning that if systemic issues needed to be addressed, they may not have been resolved in a timely fashion. Admittedly, the Department of Fire and Emergency Services and the Department of Parks and Wildlife conducted a major incident review, completed in December 2012, which involved interviews of witnesses that were conducted in November 2012. As members would appreciate, the safety of our firefighters, response to incidents, deployment of firefighter resources and communication at incidents are all matters of high public interest.
Public debate and discussion on this incident was hampered by having to wait for the inquest to conclude. There is also anecdotal evidence of witness intimidation, with personnel threatened to not discuss the incident with anyone until coronial inquiries were concluded. Anyone who knows anything about post-traumatic stress disorder would realise how unhelpful and inimical such an instruction is to successful recovery from trauma.
I am not familiar with how extensive the police report to the coroner was in that case, or whether they relied on the major incident review, but to the extent that they acted independently and canvassed the same ground, it appears to be unnecessary duplication of effort, thereby compounding delay.