Factors predicting coroners’ decisions to hold discretionary inquests

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Abstract

Background:

Coroners in Australia, Canada, New Zealand and other countries in the Commonwealth hold inquests into deaths in two situations. Mandatory inquests are held when statutory rules dictate they must be; discretionary inquests are held based on the decisions of individual coroners. Little is known as to how and why coroners select particular deaths for discretionary inquests.

Methods:

We analyzed the deaths investigated by Australian coroners for a period of seven and one-half years in five jurisdictions. We classified inquests as mandatory or discretionary. After excluding mandatory inquests, we used logistic regression analysis to identify the factors associated with coroners’ decisions to hold discretionary inquests.

Results:

Of 20 379 reported deaths due to external causes, 1252 (6.1%) proceeded to inquest. Of these inquests, 490 (39.1%) were mandatory and 696 (55.6%) were discretionary. In unadjusted analyses, the rates of discretionary inquests varied widely in terms of age of the decedent and cause of death. In adjusted analyses, the odds of discretionary inquests declined with the age of the decedent; the odds were highest for children (odds ratio [OR] 2.17, 95% confidence interval [CI] 1.54–3.06) and lowest for people aged 65 years and older (OR 0.38, 95% CI 0.28–0.51). Using poisoning as a reference cause of death, the odds of discretionary inquests were highest for fatal complications of medical care (OR 12.83, 95% CI 8.65–19.04) and lowest for suicides (OR 0.44, 95% CI 0.30–0.65).

Interpretation:

Deaths that coroners choose to take to inquest differ systematically from those they do not. Although this vetting process is invisible, it may influence the public’s understanding of safety risks, fatal injury and death.

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