By Horace Mills, BVI News Online Staff
Lawmakers yesterday passed a new Bill that they said will help bring ‘relief’ to people who would otherwise endure stress and a protracted wait for the authorities to hand over their loved ones’ bodies for burial.
The Bill titled Coroners Act 2017 makes provision for the establishment of the Office of the Coroner and Medical Examiner, and for related matters such as investigating unnatural deaths by inquest. The new law will also replace another piece of legislation that has been in existence for 67 years – so long that it is out of whack with the Virgin Islands Constitution 2007.
According to Attorney General Baba Aziz, the most fundamental change is that the proposed law makes provision for a Medical Examiner.
For decades, the Coroner who is a legal practitioner is usually required to make decisions about unnatural deaths. “That placed an unfortunate and unfair burden on the Coroner who is not usually a medical practitioner,” noted Premier Dr D Orlando Smith.
He added, “We thought that the introduction of this particular position (Medical Examiner) would give a lot of help to the Coroner.” The Medical Examiner, under the proposed law, must have specialist training in pathology and experience in forensic medicine.
The holder of the post will also be required to testify as a witness at inquests. He or she will conduct post mortems if necessary, and make a report about the cause of death to the Coroner. “In such report, the Medical Examiner shall state whether or not, in his or her opinion, any further inquiry ought to be made as to the circumstances under which the deceased came by his or her death,” added the attorney general, Aziz, who piloted the Bill through the House.
Too long waiting for bodies
Most lawmakers who contributed to a debate on the Bill yesterday (April 19), said the new law will bring ‘relief’ to residents and visitors who have to wait relatively long for the bodies of their loved ones, due to delays in processes such as post mortems.
Those instances of protracted wait are troubling, said Minister of Health Ronnie Skelton. “It has been a set of troubling circumstances for people of this country and even visitors who have lost loved ones. It is still extremely difficult for timely processes for the loved ones to receive the remains of their loved ones.”
Premier Smith, who stated that he has had to conduct post mortems locally in his capacity as a medical practitioner, lamented that the protracted wait for bodies has “actually caused quite a lot of stress as far as families are concerned”.
Choosing to die at home
Adding his voice to the debate, Deputy Premier Dr Kedrick Pickering expressed hope that, with a Medical Examiner in place, there will be an end to the humiliation families face even when their terminally ill loved ones die at home.
He explained what sometimes happens. “The police have to be called and the Coroner had to be called, and they have to search the people’s house upside down and check every closet and have to call this and that, and there is another long set of story. This [deceased] is somebody who was in the hospital terminally ill, and requested to go home so they could spend their last days; and the family had to be subjected to – the colloquial expression – all of this rigmarole.”
Bodies to be exhumed
Dr Pickering, who also worked in the local healthcare system, lauded the fact that the proposed law contains provision for bodies to be exhumed.
“It even go so far to give the Director of Public Prosecutions and the Coroner the authority to exhume a body in cases where they think that additional information might have been missing, or was needed to help in deciding and deciphering the legal aspects of the deaths surrounding the person. The bill does a very good job in terms of its outline,” added Dr Pickering.
In the meantime, the attorney general, Aziz, noted that the Bill has several other provisions including a clause that enables inquests to be held with or without jurors.
The Coroner, under the Bill, may hold an inquest without receiving a report from the Medical Examiner.
The Coroner, at any point in an investigation, can order the Medical Examiner to conduct a post mortem or special examination.
The proposed law also provides for offences and penalties associated with some offences. “Offences include burial without a warrant, refusal to report a death, refusal or neglect of jurors to perform their duties, and refusal of the witness to perform their duties [is] contempt of court,” the attorney general said.
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