Ex-coroners slam system breakdown

A group of former coroners and medical investigators has gone public with its complaints about the B.C. Coroners Service, saying the whole system is broken.

A group of former coroners and medical investigators has gone public with its complaints about the B.C. Coroners Service, saying the whole system is broken.

The Committee for Competent Death Review in B.C. says early retirements and government cost-cutting measures have crippled the Coroner's Service. And they're asking Solicitor General John Les, the minister responsible, to investigate.

The group is raising its concerns amidst the ongoing controversy over the lack of child deaths reviews in B.C., following the shutdown of the B.C. Children's Commission in 2002.

The solicitor general revealed last week that 713 child deaths had not been investigated.

Spokesperson Dr. Robert Crossland, who was a community coroner on Saltspring Island for 20 years, says coroners are no longer able to properly investigate deaths in British Columbia.

"We see too many things going wrong with the Coroners Service, and we don't see that they're going to be changing from within."

In a five-page letter to Les, the group has listed a litany of concerns including a complaint that coroners have been advised to ask doctors to guess at the cause of death and to minimize the use of expensive autopsies.

Dr. Patty Mark
"So we're asking the minister to look at a series of what we think are pretty serious concerns, so that he can initiate some external review of where the Coroners Service is going and how it's carrying out its mandate."

A Nanaimo-area doctor says she refused to sign three death certificates after she was denied autopsies for her patients.

Dr. Patty Mark says she could not determine the cause of death for the patients. And the Coroner's service asked her to give her best guess.

When she refused to sign the death certificates, the investigating coroner signed them instead.

"I was so furious. I'd been up and down. I'd talked to several coroners, I'd gone up the ladder to the Chief Coroner. Always the same response – 'It's a natural death, we don't need to be that precise.' Well, it probably is a natural death. But I don't know that."

Chief coroner defends himself

Terry Smith
B.C. Chief Coroner Terry Smith acknowledges the complaints by Dr. Mark and other doctors who have complained.

He says doctors would always like more detail, but he maintains that the policies and procedures have been maintained. But Smith says no one has been put at risk because of them.

He says the retired coroners and medical investigators are doing a great disservice to his office. But he refuses to discuss their complaints, leaving it to the solicitor general to respond.

He also spoke about the ongoing controversy over the lack of investigations of children's deaths, saying some cases do need secondary reviews – and says they will be done.

Smith says he's been forced to make difficult decisions while trying to get the most out of every dollar spent by his office. But he admits he hasn't always spent his whole budget.

"You have no idea what may happen around the corner tomorrow. In order to ensure that you are able to address every one of the critical issues, you need to manage your budget carefully. Sometimes that money is all used up and other times it's not."