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Victorian Bushfires FAQs - Roles and Responsibilities

What is the role of the State Coroner?

The State Coroner's role is to investigate the circumstances of the deaths due to the fires.

This is a complex process that will take time.

In relation to the bushfires, the task of the Coroners Court of Victoria is to ensure that a rigorous process of identification is followed, and that the many people who have lost loved ones in this disaster are supported during the coronial process.

The Coroners Court of Victoria is working with a number of professionals and experts, such as Victoria Police and the Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine, to investigate the circumstances of these deaths as quickly as possible.

The State Coroner has a responsibility to investigate 'reportable', or sudden and unexpected, deaths (under section 3 of the Coroner's Act 1985) and, where possible, determine:

  • the identity of the deceased
  • how death occurred (the circumstances)
  • the cause of death
  • the particulars needed to register the death.

In the case of the bushfires, where many people have died, an additional complex process is required in relation to the identification of those who have died. This is called the Disaster Victim Identification (DVI) process.

What is an inquest?

An inquest is a public hearing conducted by a coroner. An inquest is not a trial and it is conducted in a more informal way than other court hearings. The coroner has wide powers of inquiry and is not restricted to the normal courtroom rules about what evidence can be given. The coroner may hear from anyone who has information about the death.

At the end of a small number of investigations by the coroner, an inquest is held. There is always an inquest, for instance, where the person's identity is not known. There may be an inquest in other cases if the coroner believes it is necessary, such as when the death involves some issue of public importance.

Why might the coroner hold an inquest?

The coroner is interested in finding what lessons can be learnt from a death and can comment on any matter connected with it. For example, the coroner might make recommendations about public safety. It is not the coroner's role to establish whether a crime has been committed or to find a person guilty of that crime.

In the case of the Victorian bushfires, it is the role of Victoria Police to investigate any alleged crimes of arson and the role of the Office of Public Prosecution to prosecute any alleged offenders.

The State Coroner may be holding inquests into the Victorian bushfires.

What is the role of the Royal Commission?

In relation to the bushfires, in addition to any coronial inquiry, the government has ordered a Royal Commission - the highest level of judicial inquiry in the state - to inquire into the bushfires and make recommendations to the government.

The Royal Commission will examine all aspects of the fires including how they started, the preparation by governments and other agencies ahead of the threat, and the response to them.

Further information can be found on the 2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission website (external link).

What is the role of Victoria Police?

The Victoria Police response to the bushfires includes three distinct areas of responsibility:

  • the emergency response
  • the Disaster Victim Identification (DVI) process
  • the criminal investigation into the fires.

Victoria Police personnel responded to the fires both during and after they happened, along with other emergency services such as the Country Fire Authority (CFA) and the Department of Sustainability and Environment (DSE).

Taskforce Phoenix was established to investigate the circumstances of all fires that caused death across Victoria, from the view of a coronial investigation and, where appropriate, a criminal investigation.

The DVI process is separate to the criminal investigation. It is part of the investigation undertaken by Victorian Police for the State Coroner. The DVI Commander controls the Victoria Police procedure for identification of the bushfire victims. The Victorian DVI process is internationally adopted and is based on Interpol procedures.

What is the role of the Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine?

Experts at the Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine (VIFM) are also involved in the DVI process. They are trained and experienced in human identification techniques.

Of particular importance to the DVI process are:

  • The mortuary - this is where each bushfire victim is examined as soon as possible after admission. The examinations include photography, radiography (using a CT scanner), fingerprinting (if possible), autopsy (if applicable) and anthropological and dental assessments.
  • Forensic pathology - these doctors carry out the physical examination of each victim to assist with determining medical features that can help with identification. These include previous surgery, current diseases, medical prosthetics and implants. The pathologist also informs the Coroner about the probable cause of death.
  • Forensic anthropology - these scientists specialise in the examination of skeletal remains by determining such things as gender, racial affiliation, stature and age of each person.
  • Forensic odontology - forensic dentists are involved in the identification process where the effects of fire preclude visual identification. The use of dental record comparison is a reliable method of identification.
  • Forensic toxicology - toxicologists and pharmacologists examine autopsy specimens for the presence of medicines and drugs, including toxins produced in fires. The presence of therapeutic medicines can sometimes help to identify people who were being treated with prescribed medication.
  • DNA - where possible, samples taken in the mortuary are used to obtain DNA. During consultations with families, Victoria Police collected DNA samples (mouth swabs) from close relatives of those who died, and these are analysed by the scientists in VIFM's DNA laboratory and, where possible, compared with DNA from the deceased.