Coroner recommends

Eric Crampton

Search Google NZ for Coroner recommends and you'll find:

The Coroners Act 2006 empowers coroners:

to make specified recommendations or comments (as defined in section 9) that, in the coroner's opinion, may, if drawn to public attention, reduce the chances of the occurrence of other deaths in circumstances similar to those in which the death occurred;

Persons appointed as Coroner "must have held a practising certificate as a barrister or solicitor for at least 5 years."

I'm sure that these are all smart and diligent people. I'm also sure that there is no required training in cost-benefit analysis in a legal degree.

The problem seems to be in the Act. Pretty much anything that could reduce the chances of particular forms of death can be recommended; there's no consideration anywhere of costs. It's fine to say that that's Parliament's job. But Coronorial recommendations carry some weight - people take them as being something more than "This is something that could save lives, but I have no clue whether it's worth it because I have zero training in policy assessment and cost-benefit analysis, so somebody else better figure out whether we'd be wasting a whole ton of resources in enacting it; moreover, the Act specifically asks me to just name any darned thing that might help even if it would cost a trillion dollars and save a life every fifty years."

I'd be willing to bet that a reasonable proportion of the above recommendations would fail any serious cost-benefit analysis. Mandatory high vis clothing for cyclists, licenses for nail guns, and mandatory skateboard helmets all seem exceptionally unlikely to pass any kind of "is this a reasonable policy" test.

This economist recommends that either Coroners get training in cost-benefit analysis, or start noting the limitations of their recommendations.

The Chief Coroner wants it mandatory that government respond to Coroner recommendations. I would hope that the default response would be "The value of a statistical life for policy purposes in New Zealand is $3.8 million; the policy seems exceptionally likely to impose costs in excess of $3.8 million per statistical life saved. Please go away and come back with something reasonable."

Dr Eric Crampton is Senior Lecturer in Economics at the University of Canterbury. He blogs at Offsetting Behaviour.

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7 Comments & Questions

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Obviously, govt would not agree with all of coroners' recommendations but a reply should always be required, rather than just ignoring them.
liberte

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Hear, hear.

It seems that every time I open the paper these days there's some looney-tunes recommendation by a coroner inside. Their mantra appears to be: "I've seen something I don't like. The government should pass a law to stop it."

Applying that logic to coroners themselves, a law that would bring many benefits is one that requires coroners to think before they speak. Funnily enough, I bet that's one law coroners wouldn't like...

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I agree with Eric. All recommendations should first have to survive a ballpark cost benefit examination before publication wastes further time and money.

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Why is a legal background required to be a coroner anyway? Since the objective is to lay blame rather than to give punishments (which requires much more standardisation to ensure fairness) then having an economist or some other professional who has the skills to analyse information should be better than a solicitor.

The legal guys tend to hate numbers (they chose law for a reason) and will avoid doing things such as a cost-benefit analysis at almost any cost.

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What calibre of people will you get to perform the role if you only have to have been out of Uni for 5 years?

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While five years with a practicing certificate is the minimum legislative standard, it is certainly not the benchmark for qualifications and expertise. You will find all the coroners have far more qualifications and experience than someone "out of uni for five years".

The United Kingdom and many of the Australian jurisdictions have a requirement that government agencies respond to coroners' recommendations. This does not impose a mandatory requirement on a government to implement or justify such recommendations, simply to respond. If the government responds by saying that the recommendation is economically unjustifiable then fine - and it should improve the quality and rationality of coronial recommendations in the long term. At present there are no mechanisms to hold the government to account for completely ignoring coronial recommendations, nor coroners for making daft ones.

Decontextualising recommendations from the robust inquiry that preceded them and describing them facetiously as, for example, "coroner recommends changes to design of future prisons" is misleading. Good coronial recommendations are specific, evidence-based and may prevent the loss of life. Bad coronial recommendations can justifiably be called out as so.

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Has anyone read Bob Jones' comments today on coroners?

"Coroners should shut up and do their jobs.

"We read this sort of coroner guff frequently following unusual deaths in which, not content to simply do their job and officially state the cause of death, they instead ignore the extreme oddity of the circumstances and ascribe them to the community at large.

"A circus elephant escapes, runs amok and tramples someone to death and the coroner will urge that the government makes us all build elephant-proof fences.

"At the next coroners' annual conference, instead of speeches, they should have half a dozen ex-All Black forwards present to line them up, bend them over and render hourly bum-kicking sessions which hopefully will bring them to their senses."

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