History of Coroners' Courts
The first coroners were appointed by Superintendent La Trobe in November 1840. Prior to this, the function was handled by the local Police Magistrates, who merely accepted depositions from witnesses to sudden or suspicious deaths. Investigations into the causes of fire only date from 1858 and An Act for preventing the careless use of Fire 21 Vic., No.55.
The work of coroners was controlled by a mixture of British and Colonial legislation until the Coroners Act 1865 (No.253). This Act and subsequent legislation provided for the Governor-in-Council to appoint as many coroners and deputy coroners as appropriate. All Police (later Stipendiary) Magistrates were appointed as coroners although at times persons such as police officers, doctors and barristers were also eligible for appointment. Coronial work thus came to be based at local Courts of Petty Sessions, with the coroners' activities being confined to the area covered by their jurisdiction. Inquests were usually conducted at the relevant court although, especially in the nineteenth century, they were also held in places such as police stations, lunatic asylums and hotels.
The purpose of coronial investigations was to determine factors regarding certain deaths such as:
the identity of the deceased
the circumstances surrounding the death
the medical cause of death
the identity of any persons contributing to the cause of death
the collection of any other information necessary to register a death.
Despite the regional nature of coronial activity, there was no central co-ordination or regulation of functions. Although it was commonly referred to as the Coroner's Court from about 1952 (having also been previously known as the City Morgue), the Melbourne Coroner's Court merely had jurisdiction for the city and metropolitan area. From 1952 the Melbourne Coroner's Court occupied premises in Flinders Street Extension, Melbourne.
Establishment of State Coroner's Office 1986
Coronial services were reviewed twice during the 1970's. A Coroners Review Committee, appointed by the Attorney General in 1975, reported in 1977 with recommendations relating to autopsies, laboratory facilities and forensic work. A more comprehensive review was conducted by the Hon. J.G. Norris QC between the period 1978 and 1980. This review recommended a codification of the law on coronial practice which was achieved with the Coroners Act 1985 (No.10257). The Act established the State Coroner's Office (VA 2807) with a state wide jurisdiction for the investigation of a range of defined "reportable deaths".
Under the provisions of the Act, the State Coroner is responsible for the efficient administration and operation of the state's coronial system. Stipendiary magistrates are appointed as coroners by the Governor-in-General and barristers and solicitors may be so appointed. Subject to the direction of the State Coroner, coroners are responsible for the investigation of all reportable deaths as defined by the Act and may initiate an investigation into certain fires.
Coronial investigations may include the conduct of a formal public hearing or inquest and the holding of an inquest is mandatory for certain categories of reportable death including cases where homicide is suspected, where the deceased was held in care immediately prior to his/her death, where the identity of the deceased is not known and at the direction of the Attorney General or State Coroner. Many investigations are now conducted without the holding of an inquest. For further information about the role of the State Coroner and provincial coroners see VA 2807 State Coroner's Office.
Registration of Inquest Depositions
Under the provisions of the Justices of the Peace Acts and the Coroners Acts, coroners were required to forward depositions to the Crown Prosecutor. From 1853 and the proclamation of An Act for Registering Births Deaths and Marriages in the Colony of Victoria 16 Vic., No.26, coroners were required to inform the Chief Registrar of the particulars of deaths and the findings of the jury or the opinion of the magistrate as to the cause of death in those cases where an Inquest or Magisterial Enquiry was held.
In 1856, following correspondence between the Chief Registrar and the Attorney General concerning the obligations of coroners to provide information, the Attorney General advised the Chief Registrar that depositions in cases of inquests would, in future, be forwarded to that office as soon as it had been ascertained that they were no longer required for the administration of justice. (See registry of legal opinions in the custody of the Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages.)
The practice of forwarding inquest depositions to the Registrar-General continued until 1988 when the State Coroner's Office (VA 2807) assumed responsibility for all coronial records.
Location of Records
The Public Record Office has extensive holdings of records relating to the coronial function. Researchers are advised to consult the Inventory of Series entry for the State Coroner's Office (VA 2807) and the List of Holdings 2nd edition 1985, sections 2.4.0 Coroners Court and 3.18.2 Registrar General and Office of Titles.