The day-to-day life and death of working at the Coroners Court of Victoria

17 January 2022 By Stefanie Costi

Whenever Dylan Rae-White arrives for work, he is not sure what he will be walking into, writes Stefanie Costi.

A child has drowned in a backyard swimming pool. A young man has been involved in a tragic car accident and passed away. A middle-aged woman has been found unresponsive on the street. A grandfather has been found dead alone in his home by his granddaughter.

It’s just another day in the life of a coroner’s solicitor.

Working as a coroner’s solicitor at the Coroners Court of Victoria, Mr Rae-White is tasked with advising and supporting a coroner with their investigations in relation to unnatural, sudden, unexplained or unexpected deaths and fires in Victoria.

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More than 7,000 reportable deaths and fires are reported to the Victorian Court each year – a number which is steadily on the rise due to the Garden State’s increasing and ageing population.

Finding humanity and morality through tragedy

Having started his career in a boutique legal practice where he represented and advocated for survivors of child sexual abuse in the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Abuse, 31-year-old Mr Rae-White is no stranger to handling tragedy and dealing with trauma at work.

Mr Rae-White shared that there are two common themes between the survivors he once represented and the families of the deceased individuals that come through the Coroners Court.

“The obvious one is the trauma that has been inflicted upon them. While their experiences may be different, the trauma is real, significant and long-lasting. The second is that neither chose this journey”, Mr Rae-White said.

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While Mr Rae-White is acutely aware that he cannot change what has happened to the deceased, he is committed to helping their loved ones find answers and the closure they so deeply need.

“The Coroners Court is just as much focused on our humanity as it is our mortality. It recognises the value of each person and takes the time to understand the circumstances around what happened to them in those final moments, exploring the tragedy with respect and dignity”, Mr Rae-White explained. “From these deaths, the court is able to provide the government with lessons that can, in turn, help save the lives of others.”

A coroner’s solicitor’s dance with death

While every coronial investigation is unique and requires an individual and tailored approach, Mr Rae-White said that there are three general stages for most reported deaths and fires.

The report of the death

First, the coronial admissions and enquiries department at the Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine will receive the report of the death, admit the deceased person into the care of the court.

“The department will contact the senior next of kin to advise them about the coronial process, obtain more information about the deceased and the family’s wishes with respect to the deceased’s post-mortem examination and request medical information to assist the forensic pathologist with the preliminary examination of the deceased”, explained Mr Rae-White.

The investigation

Then, a forensic pathologist from the Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine will examine the deceased by conducting a full-body CT scan, taking body fluid samples and examining the body visually or conducting a post-mortem autopsy.

“If the circumstances require further investigation, the coroner may direct Victoria Police to start gathering evidence and prepare a coronial brief of evidence,” Mr Rae-White said. “On receipt of the coronial brief and medical examination report, the coroner will form a view as to what direction the inquiry should take. In other words, whether he or she requires any further evidence or whether an inquest will be held.”

According to Mr Rae-White, the Coroners Court aims to conduct investigations that are careful and thorough, but also timely and efficient.

“We aim to avoid lengthy coronial investigations which may exacerbate the distress experienced by families and others following the death of a loved one,” Mr Rae-White said. “In 2019 to 2020, about 82 per cent of our cases were closed within 12 months and 50 per cent of those matters were finalised within three months. Only about 5 per cent of all investigations result in an inquest.”

The finding

The final stage of a coronial investigation is for the coroner to make a finding on the identity of the deceased, the cause of death and the circumstances in which the death occurred. This is where coroner’s solicitors like Mr Rae-White come in.

“My day-to-day work can include drafting findings, undertaking research, requesting statements and documents, obtaining external reports, liaising with legal representatives of interested parties and appearing as counsel assisting,” Mr Rae-White said. “Regrettably – when findings are prepared – they cannot always provide all the answers to the questions that family and friends have but we do try to provide loved ones with answers and clarity in times of agonising grief and confusion.”

When delivering a finding, the coroner may also produce a set of recommendations.

“The wellbeing of the Victorian community is at the centre of what the Coroners Court does. Through recommendations, coroners can drive reforms that reduce the number of preventable deaths and strengthen public health and safety responses,” explained Mr Rae-White. “Past recommendations have led to significant changes that make Victorians safer such as compulsory seatbelts, pool fences and safety barriers on the Westgate bridge.”

The road to recovery

As one can imagine, dealing with death and grief on a daily basis can take its toll. 

“Every death, just like every life, is unique. And every death is a tragedy. But there are some deaths that can affect us more than others,” Mr Rae-White explained. “The deaths of children or those particularly vulnerable – whether because they are in custody or care at the time or were suffering from mental health challenges – can impact us in significant and unexpected ways.”

Mr Rae-White acknowledges that coronial law may not be for everyone and that continuous exposure to death can have a significant psychological impact. Therefore, signs of vicarious trauma have to be monitored and managed to keep everyone involved in a healthy space mentally and emotionally.

“It is critically important to have effective self-care strategies integrated into your daily life both at work and home if you are working in trauma-focused practice,” Mr Rae-White said matter-of-factly. “These strategies will be different for everyone. I have found that it helps to have a strong support network both personally and professionally, too.”

For Mr Rae-White and the many others who decide to pursue a path in coronial law, it is important to remember why you are there.

“For me, it’s the satisfaction of providing grieving families with answers and working to prevent similar deaths in the future that inspires and motivates me,” Mr Rae-White said. “My ‘why’ ultimately keeps me focused not only on the person’s death, but their life and the lives of those who have to go on without them.” 

Stefanie Costi is a junior lawyer and director of Costi Copywriting.

The day-to-day life and death of working at the Coroners Court of Victoria
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