Queenstown’s secret death toll under scrutiny

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Coroner David Crerar is legally hushing up Queenstown suicides – because he believes publicity may be detrimental to public safety. 

Crerar also admits his restrictive approach to releasing suicide details is at odds with New Zealand’s chief coroner Neil MacLean who favours more openness in reporting self-inflicted deaths. 

As local coroner, Crerar officially rules on causes of death – generally in public hearings at Queenstown District Court. Yet he determines the majority of suicides in closed session. 

“Suicides heard in open court are few and far between,” Crerar says. 

Closed hearings prevent the public from ever knowing – at least officially – that victims died by their own hand. 

Crerar freely admits his clamps on suicide details put him at odds with MacLean’s more liberal approach. 

“I’d agree with that – yes,” Crerar tells Mountain Scene. 

MS: Have you discussed your differing positions with Judge MacLean? 

Crerar: “No comment.” 

The Coroner’s Act prohibits public release of suicide details unless coroners are satisfied that information is unlikely to be detrimental to public safety. 

Where details are deemed detrimental, only names, addresses and occupations of victims are publishable after court inquests, together with a bare reference to the coroner’s finding of suicide. 

With closed hearings – like most of those conducted by Crerar – even those scant details are hush-hush: “There’s no obligation on a coroner to advise media [of closed hearings],” he says. 

Crerar cites Dunedin experts who believe releasing “suicide detail is detrimental to public safety almost without exception”. 

“The researchers have told me mere publication of the fact of suicide – albeit unidentified – normalises it.”
Privacy considerations for bereaved relatives also sway him towards closed hearings, Crerar adds. 

Called “hearings on the papers”, those closed sessions require him to sit alone in his chambers, he first told Mountain Scene. 

“No police, no family, no witnesses and no media attend,” Crerar says. 

Asked where such a “requirement” appears in the Coroner’s Act, Crerar then said it’s simply “convention that [other] people do not attend a hearing on the papers”. 

As sole Otago-Southland coroner since mid-2007, Rangiora-based Crerar deals with about 500 deaths annually. 

Crerar can’t say how many are local fatalities “because we don’t index deaths on a geographical basis” – nor can he say how many hearings are closed to the public or findings suppressed. Even in court hearings he has the right to prohibit publication of suicide details, Crerar says – although he’ll sometimes allow publication “for a public-good reason”. 

Crerar, 64, says he’s obviously aware some North Island coroners now release more detail on suicides but each coroner is independent, he says. 

MS: Might your more restricted approach hamper public understanding? 

“I can’t answer that,” Crerar says. 

Despite being a coroner for 33 years and dealing with “probably thousands” of self-inflicted deaths, Crerar says: “I don’t know why people [commit] suicide.” 

The case for liberalising suicide details “is almost consistently media-driven”, Crerar believes.