3.1Under the Coroners Act 2006 (Coroners Act), if a death occurs in New Zealand, there is reasonable cause to believe that death was self-inflicted, and a coronial inquiry into the death has not been completed, section 71(1) prohibits the publication of “any particular relating to the manner in which a death occurred” without a coroner’s authority. Even after a coroner has found a death to be self-inflicted, section 71(2) prohibits the publication without a coroner’s authority of “a particular of the death” other than the name, address, and occupation of the deceased person and the fact that the coroner found the death to be self-inflicted.
3.3This provision has proved to be problematic in practice. The terms of reference for this review highlight two particular issues with the interpretation of section 71. First, which particulars of a suicide are covered by the phrase in section 71(1) “particulars relating to the manner in which a death occurred?” Does that phrase preclude reporting the bare fact that the death was a suicide? Or does it merely preclude reporting the method of the suicide? Second, what should a coroner consider when determining under section 71(3) whether a report of a detail of a suicide death is “unlikely to be detrimental to public safety?”
3.4The practical context giving rise to the greatest concern is that the immediacy of interest in a death is just after it has occurred, yet it may be many months before the coroner makes a finding. What can the media or social media say in the intervening period?
3.5Some media organisations have taken the position that they are not in breach of section 71(1) if they do not report the method by which the deceased caused their own death, but report solely the fact that the death was self-inflicted.
3.6At least two interpretations of section 71(1) appear to be tenable. A broader interpretation is that reporting the bare fact that a death is the result or suspected result of suicide is not permissible. A narrower interpretation is that the prohibition extends only to specific matters such as the method by which the deceased caused their own death.
3.7We begin in the traditional fashion with a consideration of how section 71 of the Coroners Act came into being. The Coroners Acts of 1846, 1858, 1867 or 1908 had no analogous provisions. Changes came with the enactment of the Coroners Act 1951.
3.9Under the system then in place in the United Kingdom there were three broad concerns:
It is a matter of common knowledge which none of our witnesses disputed – that a suicide in which some particular means is adopted is frequently followed by a chain of similar suicides … witnesses of great authority took the view that the publication of details of the manner in which suicide was committed was calculated to lead to others who had a tendency to suicide to take their own lives. It was argued on the other side that publicity did no more than suggest a particular means of suicide to a person who intended to commit suicide and who was only influenced as to the means to adopt … we consider that the true view of this matter is that there are at any one time a number of people contemplating suicide to whom the knowledge of what may appear to be an attractive and painless method of ending life is an important factor in making up their minds to destroy themselves.
We have been impressed by the consensus of opinion that the present publicity of inquests on suicides often causes very great hardship and does a great deal of social harm. We have the greatest reluctance to propose anything which would restrict the freedom of the press. To uphold that freedom is a matter of the highest public importance and it should be jealously guarded. It has generally been used with admirable restraint by the newspaper proprietors for this country. Nevertheless, in this particular matter, we have reached the conclusion that the publication and the press of the proceedings at inquest on suicides should be limited to a statement of the name and address of the deceased and of the verdict that the deceased died by his own hand …
The Committee also expressed concern about the publication of things such as witness statements and photographs in the press “before the inquest is held”. As it transpired nothing was done in response to these recommendations.
We think that the argument that publicity increases the number of suicides is insufficiently supported by clear or irrefutable evidence to justify so controversial a step as the total prohibition of press reports.
It rejected the idea of a discretionary provision “since the effect of this would often be to place coroners in a most invidious position”.
3.15We note that recently, coronial law in the United Kingdom has had a complete (and highly contentious) overhaul by the Coroners and Justices Act 2009, which came into force in July 2013. That legislation created great public controversy because it appeared to revive proposals for the possibility of some secret hearings and, on the other side, the necessity to accommodate English law to the Human Rights Act 1988 and the European Convention of Human Rights.
3.17It is not necessary for us to comment on the wider debate here. It suffices to say there does not appear to be anything in the complex 2009 United Kingdom legislation that bears on the issue we are pursuing other than to note that the overwhelming concern of the United Kingdom commentary and media was that its thrust was against, rather than for, greater transparency. We agree with these concerns.
3.18What is important for our purposes is that in New Zealand the insights of the Wright Committee appear to have been the inspiration for section 21 of the New Zealand Coroners Act 1951. This provided that a coroner may direct that no report or no further report of the proceedings of an inquiry be published until after the coroner’s findings. Where the coroner found the death was self-inflicted no report of the proceedings, without the authority of the coroner, could be published other than the name, address and occupation of the deceased person; the fact that an inquest had been held; and the fact that the coroner had found that the death was self-inflicted.
3.21The recommendations in that Report were largely adopted in section 29 of the Coroners Act 1988. However, there was an expansion in at least two respects: the restrictions were made automatic rather than by order of the coroner; and the restrictions took effect prior to an inquest being opened.
Making public of details of self-inflicted deaths
Clause 61 of the bill as introduced provides that no person may make public specific details in cases of suspected or established self-inflicted death without the coroner’s authority. “Making public” includes publishing on an Internet site that is generally accessible to the public. The bill provides that the coroner may authorise the making public of particulars of a self-inflicted death only if that is consistent with public safety.
We considered amending the bill to permit more detail about self-inflicted deaths to be made public, as some submitters had suggested that greater transparency might lead to better understanding of the issues relating to self-inflicted death. However, we remained concerned about the implications for public safety and the possible consequences of such a change, and support some restriction continuing in the interest of public safety.
We note that family members of the deceased would be covered by the provisions restricting making public details of a self-inflicted death. People who wanted to make public the details of a self-inflicted death of a family member would have to apply to the coroner for authorisation. We expect that, when considering whether or not to authorise the making public of details of a self-inflicted death, coroners would weigh carefully the interests of family members of the deceased and the potential risk to public safety if particular details were made public.
3.27Taken as a whole, this passage suggests that the Select Committee thought the purpose of section 71 was to prevent publication of the method by which the deceased took their life, rather than the fact that the death was self-inflicted. This is because the first paragraph refers to the restriction being on “specific details”; the second paragraph refers to the possibility of publication of “more detail”; and perhaps most distinctly, the Committee went on to conclude that “some restriction” is desirable. This suggests that the restrictions do not extend so far as to prohibit publication of the fact that a death was self-inflicted.
3.28The difficulty appears to be that the Committee did not clearly consider the timing problem; that is, restrictions that applied before the completion of an inquest, and afterwards. Consequently, it did not specifically consider whether a death could be reported a suicide or self-inflicted before the coronial inquest had determined that.
Hon RICK BARKER (Minister for Courts): … I reassure Mr Finlayson that the Justice and Electoral Committee has got this legislation right. I read with interest the submissions, such as that made by the Press Council. I draw his attention to what I think is the most important line in that submission: “The Press Council eschews debate on the issue of ‘contagion’ or ‘copycat suicide’, except to say that the evidence to support this is very unclear.” On the basis of eschewing the research, the Press Council opts for freedom of the press.
I did some cursory investigation myself, and found every piece of evidence to be very clear. It did not take much to research the information through the internet. The first thing is that copycat suicide has been recorded over and over again. Every piece of research showed that when a high-profile suicide is attempted, others follow. We had the example in Hong Kong whereby a very unusual method was used for suicide. It had never been seen before, and by putting it in the public arena, in a very short period of time it became the third most common form of suicide in that area. Every other piece of research shows that when someone, particularly a young person, commits suicide, other suicides follow. The copycat and contagion effect is documented incredibly throughout. It is beyond doubt. So the Press Council is saying that it wants to have the ability, under the guise of freedom of speech, to report suicide, and that the public’s right to know is greater than the negatives that can befall the general public. I am very cynical about this.
… the research shows that copycat suicide and contagion is a very real factor. Anyone who has studied this issue will tell us that when someone commits suicide in an area, it sends a signal to others that suicide is an OK thing to do. That person is the permission-giver. We had a very good example of that recently in a small central North Island town, where a number of people took their lives, one after another. Despite Parliament’s prohibition on reporting that matter, a senior executive of a television programme said: “Despite what the law says, I believe that the public has a right to know”. Although there were legal consequences arising out of doing it, the programme went on to display all of the facts. That case demonstrates the responsibility taken by the media on this issue.
If I could for one instant believe that the rules that were agreed to would be honoured, I would be tempted to consider the matter, but I can not. The fact is that, contrary to what the media shows, the number of suicides in New Zealand is falling. That is the situation. The public perception is somewhat different. The second inaccuracy in the public perception is that youth suicide is the main problem, but that is not the case, either. The most common form of suicide in New Zealand is male and is aged 25 to 30 years old and older. Those statistics will come as a surprise to people. The third thing is that a disproportionately high number of Maori people commit suicide. Again, that is contrary to the public perception, because the media have highlighted only those that they know will maximise their traction. If the media were able to highlight a particular youth suicide in an area, the shock and horror aspect of it would certainly sell even more newspapers – and we are told that that is the benefit for freedom of information. Well, I do not accept that. My view is that Parliament is entitled to have a view on these things. It has had a view on them, and it has been very successful. The rate of suicide in New Zealand is declining and I think that Parliament is taking exactly the right stance on this issue.
The media suggest that removing the restrictions on reporting details of suicide will improve public understanding of the issue and reduce the number of self-inflicted deaths. The Government does not agree. An increasing body of evidence is showing that media reports of suicide can trigger [emulative] and copy-cat suicides and lead to increases in both the overall number of suicides and the use of a particular method of suicide.
3.31It is not necessary for us to finally determine the scope of the restriction in section 71(1). We are satisfied that the scope of the provision is unclear and that if a legislative restriction continues to be justified, the scope of that restriction should be made much clearer. We address the question of whether a legislative restriction continues to be justified in Chapter 6 and the scope of a proposed new restriction in Chapter 7.
3.32We turn now to the meaning of the words “unlikely to be detrimental to public safety” in section 71(3), which concerns the grounds upon which a coroner may grant authority to publish the particulars of a suicide. Coroners have told us they would like more guidance as to what they should take into account when making a section 71(3) determination.
3.33As it currently stands, the phrase is very broad and is open to multiple interpretations. In particular it gives little guidance as to the strength that should be given to the evidence linking reporting suicide with copycat behaviour. On the one hand, “public safety” may require that the public be warned about a particular method of suicide so that parents or friends of a vulnerable person may take steps to protect that person from risk. On the other hand, the evidence of copycat suicides suggests that reporting on the method of suicide may have the unintended consequence of “advertising” that method to a vulnerable person.
3.34We consider that if an exemption from the statutory prohibition continues to be required, the grounds upon which it is to be made should be as clear as possible about the extent to which the evidence of copycat behaviour deriving from suicide reporting should be taken into account. We address this matter in Chapter 7.