Why B.C. Coroners stopped providing some basic information about public deaths - InfoNews

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Why B.C. Coroners stopped providing some basic information about public deaths

Image Credit: ADOBE STOCK
March 06, 2018 - 6:30 PM


The B.C. Coroners Service used scathing criticism of how it shares information with families to justify a new policy to limit how much information it shares with the public about sudden deaths in their communities.

Since March 2017, the coroners service has reversed a policy of releasing identities of people who have died suddenly, unexpectedly, or in public — a policy that has existed since its inception and deemed part of its mandate to ensure ‘no public death is concealed, overlooked or ignored’.

The service has always been the public’s eye into sudden death investigations through coroners reports or through coroners inquests, which loosely mirror a public courtroom. The change in policy is significant, but spokesperson for the B.C. Coroners Service Andy Watson says it’s not contrary to the public interest.

"We don’t release the identities of deceased persons, unless we have explicit request from family to do so on their behalf. That’s ultimately to protect the privacy of the deceased and also to protect the privacy of the family involved," Watson says.

They made the change without any public consultation and without direction or suggestion of a judge, a public body or a grassroots push by citizens. Vincent Gogolek, past executive director of the Freedom of Information and Privacy Association of B.C., says such a bold change is rare from a public body.

“Especially since (releasing identities) was available in the past, there wasn’t a legal impediment before to them releasing names of deceased,” Gogolek said. “It’s up to them to say why they suddenly believe that they should not be doing this, because it doesn’t look like they cannot do this, it looks like they’ve decided not to.”


Watson said chief coroner Lisa Lapointe was not available for an interview for this story, and iNFOnews.ca was unable to speak with her directly.

Watson said the change was made after a recommendation from the office of the Ombudsperson in the nearly 400-page ‘Misfire’ report into the suicide death of Roderick MacIsaac, an ex-employee with B.C.’s Health Ministry.

A number of recommendations were made to several public bodies in the province.

It’s an odd admission for the coroners service, since B.C.’s Ombudsperson, Jay Chalke, confirmed to iNFOnews.ca in a phone interview earlier this year that his only recommendation to the coroners service was to develop a policy for disclosure of information and personal records obtained through coroners investigations, such as notes written by MacIsaac before his suicide. The Coroners service was criticized for refusing to release those notes to the family — they were only read a redacted version of the note over the phone.

Chalke says this recommendation came from the service’s lack of a written policy surrounding the issue.

“We investigated the issue of disclosure by the coroner of digital information contained on password-protected devices that had belonged to a deceased person,” Chalke said. “We made a finding that the lack of a written policy and guidance that would provide clear guidance to coroners was a concern, and we recommended that such a policy be developed.”


But the coroners service didn’t stop there in its review of information sharing policies. In Watson’s words — it went a step further.

"We actually reviewed our entire... information release policy, which includes records from electronics, right through to information we disclose publicly," Watson said. "We brought lawyers on board as well to assist in that, and we made a number of tweaks to policy to ensure that we were aligned with what the legislation outlined, and also to make sure we were aligned with provincial privacy legislation."

The move seems to fall in line with other large government organizations to scale back information sharing to the public. For example, the RCMP used a privacy audit of how it handles internal records to create a new policy to no longer disclose the identities of homicide victims — including in some cases even that a homicide has occurred in a community — unless it’s deemed an ‘operational need’ to the investigation. The Alberta Association of Chiefs of Police adopted the same policy last year.

Does that mean these organizations were not in compliance until they made these changes? Watson doesn’t believe so.

“At the end of the day maybe you could look back and say maybe we didn’t do our due diligence in terms of protecting identity in the past, but very clearly with this review we are now able to do that and I think anybody looking at this from a reasonable point of view would see the value in protecting the identity of the deceased,” Watson said.


Watson added that releasing the identity of a deceased doesn’t further public interest in most cases, but in the cases where it does, the chief coroner has the discretion to release identities.

“One example of that, we work with police very closely in any sort of suspicious deaths or homicides, so releasing the names of the deceased may be in the best interest of a police investigation, to be able to get more facts to be able to complete their fault-finding investigation, which could include criminal charges,” Watson said. “On the flip side, there could be a family of somebody that died in tragic circumstances, and during the grieving process, they don’t need to be adding another stressor to their end in terms of fielding calls from media or having speculation on social media.”

When asked if providing more information to the public instead of less would decrease speculation on social media in particular, Watson maintained that he believed identity wasn’t a factor necessary to reporting.

“I think what’s essential is that we provide enough information to make sure you know generally what has happened,” he said. “For example… we’ll provide a gender, we’ll provide a general age range, we’ll provide enough information that’s not identifying so that you can at least tell a story.”

So far, most of the complaints have come from news reporters concerned about the loss of 'who' from the basic five Ws of reporting. But the decision itself is concerning for Gogolek and freedom of information watchers. He’s more concerned about the limited information that has been released about the details of the policy review. He believes there’s supposed to be a growing trend toward more open government, and that freedom of information requests should be a last resort when it comes to the public trying to access information.


It also appears the coroners service missed the real mark from the Misfire report, according to the former Supreme Court of Canada justice assigned to assess the government's response. 

In his Oct. 17 monitoring report, Thomas Cromwell said: “I have reviewed what I understand to be a revised policy relating to disclosure of information by the Coroner’s Service which includes a section dealing with disclosure of information retrieved from electronic devices,” Cromwell writes. “The policy is (sic) my view does not provide the “clear guidance on the steps a coroner can and should take to disclose documents obtained during an investigation to the deceased individual’s family or personal representative…” as the Ombudsperson thought was necessary.”

To contact a reporter for this story, email Ashley Legassic or call 250-319-7494 or email the editor. You can also submit photos, videos or news tips to the newsroom and be entered to win a monthly prize draw.

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