Court's Minister Aupito William Sio apologises to grieving families waiting for Coroner's Court after 'unfortunate' quip, outlines plans to fix delays

The Court's Minister has apologised to grieving families waiting for coronial inquests after making light of the time it would take him to fix the delay problem. 

Aupito William Sio's sympathy comes as new data shows a breakdown of just how long people are stuck in the system. 

Now, Sio has announced the areas he plans on focusing on to make changes.  

It's an issue close to Corinda Taylor's heart. Nothing will bring her son Ross back, but knowing the Court's Minister is doing everything he can to help grieving families would help her pain.

"I think I want to hear that he has his desire to make a difference for all of those families. Every year between 6-700 families face what we are facing. I want to hear that he wants to fix this problem and that there has to be better support for families," Corinda told Newshub. 

So far, she hasn't been convinced. 

"We want better support and we deserve better support." 

She's been waiting eight years for the coronial inquest into Ross' suicide to be completed.

Newshub recently interviewed Corinda after she was left questioning Sio's commitment to resolving delay times. She felt retraumatised by a comment making light of assigning a timeline to fix the problem in a recent Parliamentary Select Committee.

In the meeting, Sio acknowledged there are challenges to finding a solution but felt confident it was "heading in the right direction".

National's spokesperson for Courts Chris Penk then rebuffed: "Frankly though Minister, you're not", before delivering relevant statistics - including the wait times now averaging 484 days as compared with 303.

"What else have you got?" Penk asked.

"In the overall scheme of things, the system is heading in the right direction... I'm not trying to take away from the fact in the Coroner's space - I receive plenty of emails and I note the conversations that are happening in the public arena - and my acknowledgement of how difficult and challenging that is, but I want to assure this committee, yes we have started the work, to make some changes," Sio said.

"We met up with some challenges, now we are looking at other opportunities, it's a challenge that I'm up to... time will tell."

Penk replied: "When you say 'time will tell' Minister, what does that mean?"

That's when Sio retorted: "Maybe three years, maybe 18 years."

Now, Sio has apologised for the ill-timed quip. 

"I do want to apologise to the Taylor families and all other families who have loved ones who are still with the Coroners. That snippet in my engagement with my political colleagues, I have to say, was unfortunate." 

Corinda says she accepts the sentiment. 

"I'm actually astounded that he has made an apology and the apology is accepted. I am really pleased that he has apologised and I think he possibly now realises that it is no laughing matter and that it is really a crisis our coronial system is facing." 

New figures show the time it is taking for coronial inquests to be completed.
New figures show the time it is taking for coronial inquests to be completed. Photo credit: Newshub.

The coronial inquest process can offer families closure and answers after an unexpected death, like by suicide. 

Corinda says waiting is like "living in limbo, not knowing what comes, next eats away at your soul".

"It's the uncertainty of waiting, not knowing when that next email is going to come, it's the fear of when that email comes, what is going to be in that email." 

Geoff Booth knows her pain. Like Corinda, he's also one of 5439 people currently waiting for answers. 

"I'm not on the path by choice and it's bloody hard. There's no rule book, there's no guide, to this is what you need to do because everyone reacts differently." 

His son Liam died by suicide aged 21. It will be four years since his death this October, and he is still waiting for his coronial inquest. 

"I got a letter on the 3rd of October 2017 to say that there was going to be an inquest, but he only died on the 2nd, so they're really quick in regards to throwing that information out but after that, nothing for literally years," he told Newshub. 

"I still don't have closure. There's things that I should probably know about his death that I don't know and you sort of chew those over in your mind, thinking could of, should of, would of. Was there something that I could have done differently? Is there something that they can learn from Liam's death that can prevent other families from going through what I'm going through? 

"I need them to make a ruling so I can close that chapter. He'll still always be my son, but I need closure." 

The most recent statistics show just how bad this problem really is. 

As of May 31, 54 percent of active coronial cases are more than one year old, 40 percent are more than two years old, 19 percent are more than three years old, 405 active coronial cases (7 percent) are more than 4 years old and 162 active coronial cases (3 percent) are more than 5 years old. 

Law currently restricts the number of permanent full-time coroners that can work to 18. Eight part-time relief coroners were appointed in 2020 but numbers have depleted again. 

Corinda believes the Coroners Act is out of date. 

"They need to employ more coroners and support staff and support for families, I think they really need to look at this seriously now."

Sio says he's committed to making the changes needed to clear the backlog and reduce wait times. 

"I'm determined to make the reform that's required and I've got three years to do it. And I'm optimistic that with the short-term legislative changes we can see how some of the natural deaths can be addressed quite quickly by the Coroners. And then through the Budget process, I'm hopeful that we can provide more, additional, relief Coroners and then there's long-term work that can provide a permanent solution, and not ad hoc."

In 2019-2020, natural deaths made up 53 percent of a coroner's workload. Sio says this is an area they are looking at changing. 

"I've already been in discussion with the Minister of Health. There are some short term solutions that we can make. Natural deaths - if the family are agreeable to it, if the doctors are agreeable to it, we can relieve that from having to spend more time in the Coroners. But it does require legislative change."