When to issue a death certificate or to refer a patient’s death to the NSW Coroner?

31 January 2024

Doctors have a legal obligation not to issue a death certificate if the person’s death is a ‘reportable death’. But what is a reportable death?

A person’s death is a ‘reportable death’ if it is:

  1.  a violent or unnatural death;
  2. a sudden death the cause of which is unknown;
  3. the person died under suspicious or unusual circumstances;
  4. the person had not been attended by a doctor during the period of 6 months immediately before the person’s death;
  5. the person died in circumstances where the death was not the reasonably expected outcome of a health-related procedure; or
  6. the person died while in or temporarily absent from a mental health facility.

There are other circumstances in which a doctor must not issue a death certificate as a Coronial Inquest must be held. The other situations are, if:

  1. the person died whilst in or attempting to escape from the custody of a police officer, or during the course of police operations;
  2. the person died in custody including detention centres;
  3. the person was a child in care, a child whose death may be due to abuse or neglect, or a child/ sibling of a child in respect of whom a report was made to the appropriate authority; or
  4. the person was, at the time of death, living in residential care or received assistance.

If a doctor establishes that the person’s death falls within one of the above categories and he/she cannot issue a death certificate, the doctor must report the death to the Police as soon as practicable. The Police will notify the Coroner and investigate the circumstances of the death.

Usually, the Police may request a statement or the medical records from the patient’s treating doctors. In these circumstances, we strongly recommend that all doctors seek assistance from their medical defence organisation before providing any statement to the Police. Ultimately, it will be a matter for the Coroner to decide whether or not to hold an Inquest into the death of the person.

If you have any doubt or have any queries, it is best to contact your medical defence organisation or us, so that you make the correct decision.

This article was written by Scott Chapman, Partner and Megan Priestley, Special Counsel. 

Megan Priestley

Special Counsel | Sydney

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