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Thursday, May 06, 2010

British Columbia's coroner system questioned by forensic pathologist

May 6, 2010
By Carlito Pablo, The Georgia Straight

Forensic pathologist John Butt wants B.C. to introduce a medical examiner system; currently, the chief coroner isn’t required to have a medical background.
A renowned forensic pathologist says B.C. should change its system for investigating sudden deaths.

John Butt is recommending a shift from the current coroner setup to a medical examiner system, which is used in a number of other provinces, namely Alberta, Manitoba, Nova Scotia, and Newfoundland and Labrador.

“In the investigation of sudden death, there are five questions that have to be answered,” Butt explained to the Georgia Straight in a phone interview. “The question that carries the greatest responsibility and is commonest and costs the most money is the question ‘Why?’, which is the medical cause of death.”

Butt is a former chief medical examiner for Alberta and Nova Scotia. He now works in Vancouver as a private consultant in forensic medicine, and specializes in providing expert testimony.

B.C.’s Coroners Act doesn’t require the chief coroner to have a medical background. For almost 30 years, between 1981 and 2010, the post was held by ex–police officers. Robert Galbraith was followed by Vincent Cain; Larry Campbell, who later became Vancouver mayor and is now a Liberal senator; and Terry Smith.

On April 1, Diane Rothon took over the B.C. Coroners Service, becoming the second physician to head the death investigation agency since the province’s first chief coroner, William McArthur, who held the position from 1979 to 1981.

Although Butt is pleased that the new chief coroner is a doctor, he suggested that the province consider introducing a medical examiner system.

“The medical examiner system is led, governed by an expert in forensic pathology,” he said. “That means that they have to be a forensic pathologist, not just a doctor. Just like the operating room is the tool of the surgeon, the tool of the forensic pathologist is the autopsy.”

Butt pointed out that the B.C. Coroners Service doesn’t have forensic medical expertise. As such, it contracts out autopsies to hospitals.

The Ministry of Public Safety and Solicitor General didn’t make Rothon or any other official available for comment. However, in a statement e-mailed to the Straight, a ministry spokesperson asserted that there is no compelling reason to switch to a medical examiner system.

Like Canada, the U.S. employs a mix of coroner and medical examiner models in different jurisdictions. However, a report released last year by the National Academy of Sciences, a Washington, D.C.–based private advisory body, recommended Congress earmark funds to set up “medical examiner systems, with the goal of replacing and eventually eliminating existing coroner systems”.

The report cited the need for unbiased death investigations in sensitive cases like police shootings and those occurring in jails, as one of the reasons for having a medical examiner. “The medical examiner is first and foremost a physician, whose education, training, and experience is in the application of the body of medicine to situations that have a legal dimension that must be answered by a practitioner of medicine,” the document states.

For many years in B.C., deaths in police custody were automatically subject to coroners’ inquests. However, in March of this year, the provincial government passed legislation giving the chief coroner the discretion to waive inquests in these cases, a move that civil-liberties advocates like lawyer Cameron Ward argue will weaken police accountability.

How this new legislation will be implemented is one of the issues the B.C. Civil Liberties Association intends to raise with Rothon in a meeting scheduled for June 1, BCCLA executive director David Eby told the Straight.

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