Untimely deaths need proper investigation

PUBLISHED : Monday, 31 December, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 31 December, 2007, 12:00am

Thanks in part to modern science and technology, we live longer, more active lives and understand more about our mortality. As a result, we tend to attach even more importance to lifestyle and health care - and when life is cut short, the need to know why.

Most deaths are medically unremarkable and call for no further explanation, but there remain many kinds that by law must be reported to the coroner. In some of these cases, the latest diagnostic technology can throw more light on the cause without the need for a police investigation or autopsy. But this does not account for the sharp drop in the number of investigations and autopsies ordered by Hong Kong's coroners. The main reason apparently is to save money. The question is whether that is in the public interest.

As we report today, judiciary figures show that the proportion of reported deaths where an autopsy was conducted fell from 55.8 per cent in 2001 to 38.1 per cent last year, and the percentage of death investigations by police fell from 30.7 per cent to 11.8 per cent over the same period. An academic and experienced forensic pathologist says the autopsy rate was as high as 80 or 90 per cent during the 1990s, although advances in diagnostic technology have since obviated the need for autopsies in many cases. Still, medical and suicide prevention experts have raised concerns over the latest figures.

The office of coroner is one of the oldest under the common law. What also sets it apart is that a coroner seeks to establish the cause and circumstances of a wide variety of deaths without the purpose of determining blame, although the Coroner's Court's findings can be brought to the attention of law authorities. Coroners nowadays are also seen as serving a preventive function by identifying life-threatening hazards in the community and making recommendations for reducing or eliminating them. Even when the cause of reportable death is self-evident, there can be valuable lessons to be learned from investigating it.

In order to do their work, coroners are heavily reliant on autopsies, which only they can order. It is a decision that calls for dispassionate discretion. On the one hand, bereaved relatives may want an investigation and hearing in the hope of uncovering more information about the death of a loved one. On the other, a family may exercise its right to seek a waiver of the need for an autopsy for cultural reasons.

The public interest, however, must be paramount in reaching a decision. The expense of investigations, autopsies and inquests should not be a prevailing consideration.

Last year's annual coroner's report claimed the public interest was best served by avoiding the expense of investigations in cases where suicide or accidental death is clearly indicated by the evidence. However, as experts interviewed for our reports point out, that begs the question: would the public interest be better served by helping to prevent these tragedies by uncovering evidence that throws more light on the underlying causes?

The common law system is the backbone of our rule of law. It provides for many untimely deaths to be investigated to clear any doubt. All due attention should be given to establishing their real causes, as it is important that the law does its best to ease people's doubts. In that respect, due process should be allowed to take its course. If the Coroner's Court is short of resources, the public interest would be better served if it asked for more.