Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Political control of coroners needs review

I’m often baffled that MLAs don’t seem to push for the tools to do their jobs more effectively.
The current debate over the independence and effectiveness of the B.C. Coroners Service offers a good example.
Dr. Diane Rothon just quit or was fired as chief coroner after nine months on the job. She has said only that she had a disagreement with the government about the direction of the coroner’s service.
The Times Colonist has been digging a little deeper and found two likely issues — political interference and budget cuts making it impossible for the coroners service to do its job.
The work is important. The service is charged with investigating all “unnatural, unexpected, unexplained or unattended deaths.” Its job is to get the facts - who died, and how and why.
That’s important for families. And the reports help a whole range of organizations prevent future deaths.
In some cases, the coroner also calls inquests - a formal hearing, in front of a five-person jury, which is charged with finding the facts and make recommendations that could save lives in the future.
The work can be controversial. Inquests can highlight government failures or underfunding that costs lives. Recommendations can challenge the status quo and call for action that agencies resist.
The service also produces reports on broader issues — the deaths of children in the government’s care, for example, or youth suicide.
That’s why independence is important. Getting at the truth and making recommendations without political influence is central to the work of the coroner.
But the Times Colonist found three former chief coroners — including Terry Smith, who had the post from 2001 until 2009 - believe the service does not have the needed autonomy to do the work properly. It’s under undue government influence.
The service, for example, is under orders to submit its reports to the government’s political communications arm, the public affairs bureau, before they are released.
At the least, that order gives the government time to plan the best way to spin the report when it is released. But it also raises the spectre of greater influence — of pressure to change the contents of the report before it is made public.
There is an obvious solution. Smith says the government should consider making the coroner an independent officer of the legislature, removing the service from direct political control. “I think in order to have an effective Coroners Service, it needs to have a much higher level of independence," said Smith, who had eight often difficult years in the job. (The proposal is supported by Children and Families Representative Mary ETurpel-Lafond.)
That seems a sensible, practical change. Independent officers - like the children’s representative, information commissioner and auditor general - don’t report to a government minister. They report to committees of MLAs with representatives from all parties. They are, to a significant extent, insulated from political pressure.
MLAs from all parties also review and set the independent officers’ budgets. That makes it harder for politicians to use funding cuts to punish or silence agencies.
The coroners service, for example, has seen its staff fall from 91 in 2007-08 to 81 today. Its budget has been cut 18 per cent in two years and more cuts are likely ahead. The Child Death Review Unit, set up as a result of the Hughes report, is threatened.
Solicitor General Rich Coleman dismisses all the concerns. The service has plenty of independence and can handle the budget cuts, he says.
But simply saying something doesn’t make it so. Three former chief coroners - the people who did the work - say the service doesn’t have the required independence.
At the least, that should be enough to force an outside review of the issues.
It’s surprising that MLAs, given the importance of the work, aren’t calling for a review that might lead to a greater role for them in an area of importance to their constituents.
Footnote: The review should also look at the appropriate qualifications for coroners, especially chief coroners. Most provinces have placed doctors in the top job. B.C., until Rothon’s appointment, has generally opted for chief coroners without medical qualifications, often with a policing background.


Mr. Beer N. Hockey said...

My understanding is one of the defining features of countries like our's and some others that most of us would not want to live in is that we try to get to the bottom of every death. To not do so only sets us back to the days of the Residential schools and a great many other horrors.

DPL said...

The BC Liberals always know best, just ask them. Their concerns are not around death of citizens but of covering their own ass.When is this province going to get rid of those clowns. To hear that the PAB has to check out the coroners work prior to the taxpayers hearing about the death shows that the government really doesn't care that much about suspicious deaths. Hope the doctor at least got a fair settlement after working for the gong show called the BC Liberals.

Leah said...

..."Most provinces have placed doctors in the top job. B.C., until Rothon’s appointment, has generally opted for chief coroners without medical qualifications, often with a policing background."

Could that be because doctors in appointments such as Chief Coroner, actually have the publics interest at heart moreso than the police? Of course! Will the day ever come when we're rid of these psychopathic liberal vampires? I'm beginning to have my doubts.

Anonymous said...

Lori Culbert has written in the Vancouver Sun that: The B.C. Civil Liberties Association filed a formal request Tuesday with the provincial ombudsperson, asking for an investigation into the circumstances surrounding last week's sudden resignation of Chief Coroner Diane Rothon.

"We hope that the ombudsperson will take a careful look at whether the independence of the coroner has been compromised, and if so could make some recommendations to the provincial government on how the coroners' office could remain independent," BCCL executive director David Eby said in an interview.

wstander said...

Could that be because doctors in appointments such as Chief Coroner, actually have the publics interest at heart moreso than the police?

Another less sinister possibility for not appointing a medical doctor as Chief Coroner is for the same reason lawyers and police officers are not permitted to sit on juries.

StandUpforBC said...

wstander, don't be so naive. Doctors are from the same slice of humanity as the rest of us. There are as many corrupt doctors as there are in any walk of life.

The Ontario Children's Coronor Dr. Charles Smith was responsible for mayhem over two decades in which he wrongfully (willfully?) stated children had been murdered when they had not. As a result, many, many parents were sent to jail, families were ruined. That's being unravelled, slowly and at great expense, in Ontario courts now, and will be for years to come.

Complaints about Dr. Charles Smith were made for years but his bosses and provincial authorities just looked the other way. Finally, a public inquiry was held in which Dr. Smith's evidence was torn to shreds. All of Dr. Smith's pronouncements were throughly false, without basis. Did he suffer any punishment? Nope, nada. Oh, well, maybe a bit of bad publicity.

Dr. Charles Smith high-tailed it to BC right after this all became public, and he now lives in Victoria, an environment that is more conducive, apparently, to hiding the deceit and damage that doctors can do than Ontario.

So, please don't put doctors on any pedestal. Being given such unassailable reputation and power with no checks and balances, or real scrutiny, often leads to gross abuses, causing great harm and even death.

We need an accountable system, not just "a doctor" in that position.

Look at the Ombudsperson -- where's her report on her Inquiry into Seniors Health Care in BC??? It's now 2 1/2 years since she announced she was conducting an inquiry. Now she's been fudging for over a year, promising "soon, soon". But she's a lawyer (supposedly a knowledgeable, self-regulated professional), but one who signed what the BC Children's Advocate would not sign, an "accord" that she would not publish anything without it first getting the approval of the government. Some watchdog.

So, the Ombudsperson fiddles while seniors die in care, sometimes at the hands of "care givers".

No one should trust doctors just because they're doctors, no more than anyone should trust a lawyer just because they're a lawyer. Crooks and harmful behaviour abound in those groups too, with only the flimsiest of accountability to dampen the dangerous actions of those who seek personal gain of some sort, be it money, power or control.

wstander said...


I don't think I am naive, but I am absolutely certain that your rant in response to my comment is a non sequitur.

cherylb said...

YOu have to wonder about the kind of world we live in when "spinning" the report takes precedence over fixing the problem.

DPL said...

The present government has many spinnners doing their thing so as long as that gang is in power we can expect them to do just about anything they want. Mind you, they screwed up on the HST but are still trying their best to spin out of that mess. Dead people don't vote so must be a low priority to the BC Liberals