Fresh twist on fire deaths

 Fresh twist on fire deaths

16 August 2009

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Australia — The bushfires Royal Commission is to deepen its probe, with every fatal incident to be examined individually in a new phase.

Families of victims are expected to be informed soon of the plan to conduct the investigations.

The move could negate the need for coroner’s inquests, with authorities expected to tell families they would simply lead to a doubling-up of resources and pain.

But some police are concerned about the death probes occurring before criminal trials.

Coronial inquests are usually held after police investigations and court hearings are finalised.

Victoria Police has been in discussions with the royal commission about the type of information it could provide.

A police spokeswoman said where a fire was deemed suspicious the force would hold back some information from the hearing if it would cause issues for its investigation or prosecution.

The Royal Commission will examine the 173 fatalities from the Black Saturday fires by location incident group, such as a household.

The process is expected to be detailed soon.

It is understood families will still be given the option to seek a coronial inquest after the royal commission.

But authorities hope there will be no need once the original probe has happened.

State Coroner Jennifer Coate has previously indicated there may be no coronial inquests.

Commission spokesman Quentin Fogarty said the bushfire inquiry would hear evidence about the fire deaths.

“That is still the commission’s intention and the focus will be on matters likely to further assist the commissioners in evaluating the ‘stay or go’ policy in particular,” Mr Fogarty said.

“But the commission’s hearings are not inquests. That is the role for the coroner.

“All evidence led before the commission will be made available to the coroner and this may assist in his/her work.”

A spokeswoman for the coroner said there would be a coronial investigation.

“But whether or not there is a public hearing is still too early for us to decide,” she said.

Mr Fogarty said it was always the intention of the commission to look at some aspects of the deaths.

“But this process is still being worked out. When we do have the detail, we will ensure the bereaved families are informed through the proper channels,” he said.

The first months of the Royal Commission, chaired by former Supreme Court judge Bernie Teague, have resulted in criticism of CFA chief Russell Rees.

The bushfires Royal Commission’s interim report is to be released tomorrow.

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