Saskatchewan Coroners Service to be granted new powers after review by former police chief

Guy Quenneville/CBC

The Saskatchewan Coroners Service will be granted new authority, including the ability to make recommendations at the conclusion of an inquest, under changes announced by the provincial government Wednesday.

The announced amendments to The Coroners Act, 1999 come in the wake a review of the Office of the Chief Coroner, now the Saskatchewan Coroners Service. The review was done by former Saskatoon police chief Clive Weighill, who became the province's chief coroner last year.

The provincial budget tabled in March earmarked $1.6 million to address recommendations from the review.

At the time, the province announced that it would hire a new forensic pathologist and farm out the analysis of forensic toxicology results to the Alberta Office of the Chief Coroner. A family liaison position was also created.

If the legislation passes, the chief coroner would be able to appoint other coroners in the province. Other changes include arming the justice minister with the authority to appoint a deputy to act as the chief coroner in their absence. 

"If all the amendments are passed, we'll be comparable to every other jurisdiction in Canada now," Weighill said on Wednesday. "I think it's very progressive."

Power to request reviews

Coroners in Saskatchewan will also be given the power to make recommendations at the end of an inquest, which was prohibited before.

Coroner's inquests are not criminal trials, but rather fact-finding missions.

Weighill said he heard from a number of people who were unhappy with the way inquests are run.

"I think allowing the inquest coroner to make recommendations will go a long way," he said.

"We've had several inquests where juries have listened to the evidence, but they've been undecided on what they want to come up with on recommendations."

Weighill said all inquest coroners are lawyers, and they may be able to pick up on nuances that a jury might miss.

They can also investigate the death of any Saskatchewan resident who dies outside the province, or whose body has been moved out of Saskatchewan.

The province is also opening the door for more inquest opportunities. In some cases, new evidence could lead a coroner to reopen an investigation.

Also, the family of the deceased can now request a review of another coroner's decision not to hold an inquest.

Weighill said requesting a review is one of the centrepieces of the new legislation.

"Some people were requesting inquests, and they didn't get inquests and they weren't receiving anything back in writing from the chief coroner," he said.

Now, if someone wants an inquest they'll make the request in writing. It will be reviewed and the chief coroner will give them an answer in writing.

"It opens the door to more transparency," Weighill said.