Legislative Council: Tuesday, September 06, 2022


Forensic Science Coronial Services

The Hon. F. PANGALLO (15:41): I seek leave to make a brief explanation before asking a question of the Attorney-General about forensic sciences.

Leave granted.

The Hon. F. PANGALLO: I received a letter recently from a distressed constituent who was told by the Coroner's office that it could take at least 12 months before the family could get a cause of death notification for a family member. This long delay is causing economic hardship because the family cannot unlock various financial entitlements, including superannuation and insurance of the deceased, until they receive the notification. They would not be alone.

I note in the latest budget there was only a 25 per cent reduction in the backlog of post-mortem reports in 2021-22 but no estimate for the next financial year. Furthermore, I am informed that morgues in the CBD and in our hospitals are filled to capacity as families await post-mortem reports, resulting in longer than usual delays in arranging funerals as well as finalising estates.

Moreover, the Forensic Science Centre is being overwhelmed with demands for its services in criminal cases requiring DNA evidence and a 25 per cent increase in drug-driving testing, with that figure expected to double in the next 12 months because of new drug-driving laws. My questions to the Attorney-General are:

1. Does he concede Labor government cuts to the Forensic Science Centre's operating budgets could be contributing to the delays?

2. What is his department doing to cut the delays in preparing post-mortem and drug-driving reports?

3. Can he provide exact figures on the extent of the backlogs?

4. Is the minister aware of the disturbing overflow in the capacity of morgues, including the backup facility?

The Hon. K.J. MAHER (Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Attorney-General, Minister for Industrial Relations and Public Sector) (15:44): I thank the honourable member for his questions in relation to this. It's an area in which I have occasionally received correspondence from family members, and often quite distressed family members, who for a whole range of reasons are seeking resolution of a loved one's coronial inquest, and that includes what happens with Forensic Science SA.

In relation to the honourable member's capacity issue, I do not have information that suggests that Forensic Science SA is at or over capacity, but I will take that on notice and find out for the honourable member. In relation to time taken for the mortuary services that Forensic Science SA provides, I know they endeavour to provide the best possible care and work hard to ensure family members' bodies are returned as soon as they possibly can be.

I know mechanisms have been put in place to alleviate the issue. However, there has been an increase in cases following the opening of state borders and the resulting impacts of COVID-19, which does continue to have a significant impact on Forensic Science SA, I am informed. I can inform the member that additional funding has been provided to the Coroners Court in 2022 for the appointment of another coroner for a 12-month term, which is intended to assist the State Coroner in the backlog of cases that flow through the Coroners Court.

Again, coronial cases that Forensic Science SA attends to have been steadily increasing over the last 10 years, and a number of measures have been put in place. In 2020, I think, there was a purchase of a $2.05 million CT scanner at Forensic Science SA. The scanner, I am informed, which was introduced in June 2020, has reduced the need for invasive post-mortems and it is now used in approximately 40 per cent of the cases.

Also, changes that this parliament made to the Coroners Act, that amended the act to enable the State Coroner to make findings of death by undetermined natural causes, have allowed pathologists, where there are no reasonable grounds to believe a death was due to natural causes, to make a recommendation to the Coroner not to conduct further examinations, which would have been required previously.

In relation to the CT scanner I mentioned, and other measures, I am informed they have delivered an improvement in the time lines of post-mortem examinations reporting. Prior to the introduction of the CT scanner, I am informed, Forensic Science SA had a backlog of approximately 1,500 coronial examinations to be reported, and the time from the date of examination to the report was up to 18 months. Two years later, I am informed that this backlog has been reduced to 712 cases and approximately nine months to the release of a report.

In previous discussions with Forensic Science SA, certainly the impacts of COVID-19 have placed pressures on what they do, but particularly the one measure with the introduction of the CT scanner has, as I have outlined, seen a quite significant reduction in time taken and in the backlog of cases.

We are always looking for ways to improve what the Coroners Court does. I have asked for advice about issues to do with certificates being issued in relation to areas of superannuation and insurance, because as I said at the start this is an issue that has been raised with me a number of times by people who are often at one of the most traumatic and stressful times of their life with the loss of a loved one.