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Determining a Suicide under Australian Law: A Comparative Study of Coronial Practice

Author

Stephanie Jowett, Belinda Carpenter and Gordon Tait

This article examines the approach taken by Australian coroners to interpreting the law relating to suicide, and to applying it in practice. A previous review of the laws and commentary guiding coroners in Australian states and territories revealed not only that coroners are the only persons tasked with making routine legal determinations of suicide, but that such legal guidance lacks clarity. This study involved semi-structured interviews with Australian coroners in five states and two territories. The key finding is that coroners vary considerably in their approach to what constitutes a suicide, the circumstances that may or may not vitiate capacity to suicide, and the applicable standard of proof. Central to these findings is the difficulty of determining intent, especially in cases where the method is less active and where a body of well documented risk factors, or expressions of intent, are lacking. Utilising a range of suicidology literature on both reported suicide and deliberate self-harm, this article identifies the areas of concern for coroners and offers suggestions for further training and law reform.

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