Tweaks to reporting suicide bill

Amy Adams
Amy Adams

A reform of the coronial system is to be tweaked after concerns were raised that reporting overseas suicide bombings would be made illegal.

A wide-ranging amendment to the Coroners Act contains changes to how suicides can be reported, among other measures.

At present, the law prevents anyone from publishing details relating to a death suspected of being self-inflicted.

If a coroner confirms the death is a suicide, only the fact of that finding and a few details such as name, address and occupation can be published. This restriction aims to prevent copy-cat suicides.

The amendment currently before Parliament would loosen New Zealand's strict laws around suicide reporting by allowing a death to be called a "suspected suicide" before a coroner's ruling.

However, it raises the penalties for any breaches and extends restrictions on what details can be published.

Lawyer Graeme Edgeler has also pointed out that, following changes to the drafting as a result of select committee recommendations, the restrictions on publication would be extended to historical and overseas suicides.

That would make it criminal to report overseas suicide bombings or historic events such as the suicides of the September 11 terrorists in New York and near Washington.

"Of course, this is one law police have never enforced. And the law change probably won't change this. Sky will not cancel its broadcasts of CNN or BBC World for fear the reporting will break the law,"Mr Edgeler wrote in an opinion piece for the New Zealand Herald this week.

"If no one is prosecuted for doing these things without first obtaining an exemption from the chief coroner, and no one - including the MPs writing this law - really wants them to be charged, wouldn't it be good if our laws didn't call them criminals?"

Despite those concerns, the legislation as drafted passed its second reading on Tuesday night.

However, yesterday a spokesman for Justice Minister Amy Adams confirmed there had been a drafting mistake and there was no intention to extend reporting restrictions to overseas suicides.

"There was an inadvertent drafting error during the select committee process and this will be fixed in the Committee of the Whole House stage."

Labour opposed to bill 

Jacinda Ardern
Jacinda Ardern

Labour has supported the suicide provisions, but is opposed to the bill because of a number of other changes.

The party's justice spokeswoman Jacinda Ardern said those included narrowing the scope or recommendations to those that directly correlated with the cause of death.

"There was a way I think that probably you could have made sure there was relevancy without precluding a coroner from drawing in things that are important."

Another objection was about the removal of the obligation for mandatory inquests into deaths in custody.

Labour also objected to a change which would remove the coroner's ability to look into deaths in hostile actions, unless it is ordered by the Attorney-General.

Ms Ardern also said the law change missed the opportunity to introduce new requirements to require agencies to respond to coroners' recommendations.

Ms Adams said the changes reduced duplicate and unnecessary investigations of certain deaths, and coroners were best placed to decide whether an inquest was necessary.

Between 3000 and 3500 sudden deaths are investigated by coroners each year.

- By Nicholas Jones of the New Zealand Herald

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