Coroners (Amendment) Bill – Speech by Dennis Tan

Delivered in Parliament on 5 October 2021

Mr Speaker, the Coroners Act (Cap 63A) came into effect in January 2011. I would like to seek the Minister’s clarifications on two of the amendments which this Amendment Bill seeks to introduce.

To give the Minister of Law flexibility to issue a certificate for the release of a dead body to a foreign State in certain circumstances (new Clause 17A)

On the first amendment which is to give the Minister flexibility to issue a certificate for the release of a dead body to a foreign State in certain circumstances, I would like to ask the Minister what were the circumstances that prompted this particular amendment in the Act, was there any recent incident where a foreign state objected to or requested for exemption from the Coroners’ holding an inquiry. What were the difficult circumstances in that case or those cases which prompted the Government to wish to give the Government the discretion not to hold a Coroners’ Inquiry?

I would also like to ask the Minister whether in making such an amendment, the Government has done a study of the likely reciprocity from other countries based on their current laws. Will there for instance be mutual reciprocity? I would also to ask the minister whether the proposed discretion is widely available in other countries.

I would like to ask what safeguards are in place to ensure that our minister, in making such a decision, will not succumb to any strong pressure from a foreign state to release the body of a dead person when there are mysterious or suspicious circumstances leading to his or her death.

Finally, will the Minister’s rationalisation of whether or not it is in the public interest for the discretion to be exercised be made publicly available?

No longer mandatory for coroner to view body for preliminary investigation (repeal and re-enactment of s 12)

Next, on the dispensing of the need for the Coroner to view the body for preliminary investigation,  this Bill introduces a new Section 12 such that the Coroner does not have to view the body when making this preliminary investigation.

According to MinLaw, there are two reasons for this suggested change:

  1. The viewing of the body serves “to ensure that the deceased is correctly identified. However, there are already existing safeguards to ensure the correct identification of bodies”, and
  • “This will expedite the process of releasing the body to the family, and will also save resources for the Police, the Health Sciences Authority and the Coroner.”[1]

In the debate to the Coroners’ Bill in 2011, the minister introducing the bill, Associate Professor Ho Peng Kee, said that (and I quote):

“…this provision will enable the Coroner to harness technology in appropriate cases, where the Coroner may be indisposed to be physically present to view the body, without having to cause unnecessary delay to the progress of time-sensitive investigations. This will expedite the release of the body to the next-of-kin after the Coroner has viewed and identified it. But let me assure Dr Lam that the norm will still be the current practice of the Coroner going down physically, right to the mortuary every morning to view and identify the body, and that includes weekends and public holidays.”

The minister was replying to a member Dr Lam Pin Min’s question and comment about whether letting the Coroner view and identify a body by video in lieu of viewing in-person to decide whether an inquiry is needed, trivialises the investigative process.

Needless to say, viewing the body is an important step to determining whether a death happened due to natural causes, and whether an inquiry into the cause of death is needed.

Comparing Associate Professor Ho Peng Kee’s remarks on the default practice of the Coroner going down physically to the mortuary to view and identify the body to the present proposed amendments, there appears to be a significant mindset shift on this.

I would like to ask the minister with this amendment, whether there is an intention to stop the Coroner’s daily attendance at the mortuary as a default practice, if it is not already happening and let video link take over as a daily default practice in its place.

If not, what is the expectation of the Government with respect to when the Coroner is expected to attend in person?

I would like to know whether the proposed change arises from a significant resource shortage for the Police, the Health Sciences Authority and the Coroner’s office. If so, will the minister elaborate on this resource shortage?

If “saving resources for the Police, the Health Sciences Authority and the Coroner” were a key consideration, would ramping up on resourcing be a more robust solution than making this key step a discretionary one?

Thank you.