What is a Coronial Inquest?

what is a coronial inquest

The disappearance of Belgian backpacker Theo Hayez galvanised the Northern Rivers Community for many, many months. Local Police organised searches, hundreds of people volunteered, others continually fed social media with updates and appeals for information.

Many people simply prayed that this young man would be found safe. Others offered accommodation and support to Theo’s family who arrived distraught – desperate to find their 18 year old son who went out drinking one Friday night in Byron Bay and never returned.

And sadly, three years later, the mystery has not been solved, and looks unlikely to ever be.


Findings of the Coronial Inquest into Theo’s disappearance and death

A recent Coronial Inquest, conducted by NSW State Coroner has determined that Theo is dead but she is unable to determine the cause or manner of his death. Ms O’Sullivan said suicide appeared to be highly unlikely and there was no reason for Theo to intentionally vanish, but she could not make a finding on two competing theories put forward to the Inquest, firstly that Theo suffered a terrible accident as he tried to climb towards the lighthouse at Byron Bay, or that one or more persons caused his death and disposed of his body.

No remains of Theo, except a hat, have ever been found.

In her final report, Ms O’Sullivan made recommendations to cut the red tape involved in searching for missing persons, including a review of the “significant legislative gaps, roadblocks and inconsistencies” that hamper effective missing persons investigations at a state, federal, and international level.

“Many of these legislative barriers are inexplicable and removing them could save lives and prevent the awful grief of ambiguous loss suffered by Theo’s family and many others,” she said.

Ms O’Sullivan also emphasised the importance of technology in locating missing persons investigations and made a suite of recommendations to improve police technological expertise and ability to quickly access data from multinational corporations like Google and location apps such as Uber.

Coronial Inquest Reports are available to the public, you can read more about the case of Theo Hayez here.


What is a Coronial Inquest?

The Coroner’s Court, which is headed by the State Coroner, ensures that all sudden, unexpected or unexplained deaths, suspected deaths, fires and explosions are properly investigated.

The Coroner’s Court operates under legislation called the Coroners Act 1980, which sates that a coronial inquest will be held if the Minister for Justice (currently Mark Speakman, NSW Attorney General) or the State Coroner determines that an inquest will be held.

However, the court is strictly state-based therefore a Coroner’s jurisdiction extends only to cases where there is a strong and relevant connection to New South Wales.

For example, at the time of death, the deceased person was ordinarily a resident of New South Wales, or visiting New South Wales.

In the case of explosions and fires, these must have occured in NSW. Where there may be incidents which have links or crossovers with other states, the NSW State Coroner will work with her peers around the country.

A coronial Inquest is usually held in the following circumstances:

  • unnatural, unexpected, sudden and suspicious deaths, including deaths in custody
  • suspected deaths (in the case of missing persons)
  • fires and explosions that cause serious injury or damage to property.

Coroners rely on information from police, GPs, specialist forensic pathologists and other specialist physicians, subject experts, and, on occasion, information from the general public.

A Coroner attempts to answer a number of questions including when and where did the person die, how, what happened and why. In the case of a fire or explosion a Coroner will aim to determine the cause and origin of the incident.

A Coroner will also examine all the evidence and make recommendations to prevent similar deaths or incidents in the future, sometimes this includes suggestions for law reform.

There are however, circumstances where a Coroner is unable to make a solid conclusion, and this is what is called an ‘open finding’.



This post is informative only. It is not legal advice.

If you have a specific legal matter you’d like to discuss, please contact us.

We service NSW, but specifically the area from Coffs Harbour to Byron Bay, Ballina,

Mullumbimby and Tweed Heads regions on the Far North NSW Coast


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