I begin by greeting everyone in the languages of the realm of New Zealand, in English, Māori, Cook Island Māori, Niuean, Tokelauan and New Zealand Sign Language.
Greetings, Kia Ora, Kia Orana, Fakalofa Lahi Atu, Taloha Ni and as it is the evening (Sign)
I then specifically greet you: Your Honour Judge Neil MacLean, Chief Coroner of New Zealand and President of the Asia-Pacific Coroners Society; Belinda Clark, Secretary for Justice; Hon Sir Bruce Robertson; State and Territory Chief Coroners from Australia; Victor Yeo, State Coroner of Singapore; David Masters President of the Coroners’ Society of England and Wales; Coroners and Magistrates from New Zealand, Australia, and Britain; Tom Luce, author of The Luce Report; Distinguished Guests otherwise; Ladies and Gentlemen.
It is with great pleasure that my wife Susan and I welcome you to Government House Auckland for this reception underlining the welcome to delegates to the 2010 International Combined Conference of the Asia Pacific Coroners Society.
As Governor-General, it is a pleasure to welcome our overseas guests. I trust you may also have the opportunity to experience a little of our country beyond the conference venue and the immediate environs of Auckland while you are here.
Coroners have a particular resonance with my term as Governor-General, for when I came to office in August 2006, one of the first official constitutional duties called for was to give Royal assent to the Coroners Act 2006, which replaced much earlier Coroners legislation. This came into full effect on 1 July 2007. the new Act had followed a thorough Law Commission Report which was a catalyst for this.
The overriding purposes of the Coroners Act are to help prevent deaths and to promote justice through investigations relating to the cause of death. Furthermore, coroners are empowered to draw to the attention of the New Zealand public any issues relating to avoidable deaths.
The role of the coroner has an ancient history having been instigated nearly eight hundred years ago, during the reign of Richard the Lionheart. Those mediaeval coroners were largely responsible for the keeping of records or what was termed “keeping the pleas of the Crown.” One of the roles that evolved was that of investigating deaths—which was allied in those times with raising revenue for the Crown.
While the revenue role has long gone, the essential role of the coroner in the 21st century in investigating the causes of death continues to be one of great importance. It ensures the promotion of justice, and serves as a kind of public watchdog.
While in a strictly legal sense, coroners’ work is to investigate deaths to ascertain the cause, that work can be said to extend far beyond the statute book. It requires a considerable degree of discretion and sensitivity and ultimately provides a sense of closure to those who may have have tragically lost a loved one.
With increasing cultural, religious and ethnic diversity that is common our highly mobilised world, I am sure few of you need reminding that a 21st Century coroner has to be ever mindful of those sensitivities in equally increasing measure.
I am reminded of the observation of the 18th century French philosopher, Voltaire, writing: “We owe respect to the living. To the dead we owe only truth.” What this comment underlines is the importance of deaths being investigated by a neutral and independent legal authority.
Deaths, particularly if they involve people with a high public profile, or if they occur in suspicious or unusual circumstances, have never ceased to attract public interest.
However, in today’s connected world, speculation, unfounded rumours and conspiracy theories can quickly gain a national and even international currency by being spread through the internet by self publishers.
That becomes a key reason why the fundamental role of a coroner in impartially investigating death, holding public hearings, and giving clear decisions as to what may have occurred, remains so important. Coronial work remains an essential companion of the often quoted maxim that justice must not only be done, but be seen to be done.
Allied to this is the Coroner’s fundamental role in documenting and appropriately publicising circumstances leading to avoidable deaths. In New Zealand, for example, we have all been saddened in recent weeks by news of a considerable number of deaths of cyclists on our roads in various parts of the country.
To that end, I note that Chief Coroner, Judge Neil McLean, has commissioned a joint inquest of several separate incidents to determine whether there may be any common factors that need to be investigated and brought to the attention of the public and responsible government agencies.
By recommending changes to policies and by highlighting dangerous public behaviours, the work of a 21st Century coroner may help to bring something positive to what are often heart breaking tragedies.
Your Asia-Pacific Coroners Society conference offers a chance for everyone to learn from each other. While there may be clear legal differences in your jurisdictions, I am sure there will be also fundamental issues you all face in those same jurisdictions. The conference also provides an opportunity to network and offer support to one another, particularly regarding the important service that you provide to other agencies and the public.
I was interested to read the Conference programme and the agenda in detail to see that it dealing with a number of common issues involved in the work of coroners. I understand that, just as in New Zealand and Australia, there has been coronial reform in England and Wales as a result of the 2003 Luce Report. A comparative discussion around the developments in both the northern and southern hemispheres will be, I am certain, insightful and valuable.
Also, of great significance, is the focus on the protection of young people from avoidable death, such as suicide. While this is a difficult subject to broach in a public forum, it is a very serious and abiding issue which needs to be handled by those that have the relevant insight.
I would like to acknowledge and pay respect to each of you for your hard work in this vital role, and for the outstanding service you have provided to your respective communities over many years. The dedication you display is greatly appreciated and is evident by your commitment in attending the Asia-Pacific Coroners Society Conference.
In sharing your expertise, and commitment to your work, you have a unique ability to make a crucial difference in the lives of a great many people indeed.
And on a note that conveys admiration and anticipation of two more days in your 18 stage programme, I will close in New Zealand’s first language Māori, by offering everyone greetings and wishing you all good health and fortitude in your endeavours.
No reira, tēnā koutou, tēnā koutou, kia ora, kia kaha, tēnā koutou katoa.