Daniel Nemukuyu Investigations and Special Reports Editor
Heads of hospitals, police stations and prisons will be jailed up to five years if found guilty of destroying or tampering with vital evidence that incriminates in the death of people under their custody, when the Coroner’s Office Bill becomes law.
This comes as Government takes seriously the death of people in prison, under police custody and in hospitals, among others. In the past there have been suspected cover-ups by heads of departments.
The Bill that was gazetted will create the Coroner-General’s Office, whose mandate will be to effectively and adequately investigate unnatural deaths that occur in health institutions, police cells, prisons and any other places.
Such investigations will be done independently and impartially.
In terms of the Bill, officers-in-charge of prisons, police stations or medical institutions must keep records regarding such sudden deaths for proper investigations by the coroner.
Failure to keep the necessary records or tampering with the information, according to the Bill, will see those in charge of the institutions being jailed for a period of up to five years.
The same Bill also criminalises refusal by medical practitioners to carry out post-mortems as directed by the coroner, an offence that attracts six months’ incarceration.
Clause 7 of the Bill states that custodial officers must keep medical records or any other relevant documents of the deceased for at least five years to allow investigations to flow unhindered.
The clause in question reads:
“Where a person dies, while in any health institution for medical treatment or care or while he or she is in a place of custody, the custodial officer shall preserve all medical records, healthcare records and any other documents pertaining to the medical treatment or care or the custody of the deceased as are in his or her possession for a period as may be prescribed but in any event for not less than five years.
“A custodial officer commits an offence if he or she wilfully or recklessly destroys or fails to preserve medical and health care or custody records in terms of subsection (1) and shall be liable to a fine not exceeding Level 10 or to imprisonment for five years or both.”
The coroner will have the power to direct any competent medical practitioner to conduct a post-mortem, for which he will be paid in terms of the prescribed tariff.
Any doctor who refuses to conduct the post-mortem, according to the Bill, will be jailed for up to six months.
“Any medical practitioner who, without lawful excuse, fails or refuses to conduct a post-mortem, when summoned to do so under sub-section (3) shall be guilty of an offence and liable to a fine not exceeding Level Five or to imprisonment for a period not exceeding six months.”
The Bill, which was recently approved by Cabinet, is now set to be debated in Parliament.
It seeks to set up the coroner’s office to be headed by the Coroner-General.
The Bill also sets out the appointment, functions and powers of the Coroner-General, the Deputy Coroner-General and the coroners in relation to post-mortems, inquests and their findings.
The Bill, if it sails through, is expected to ensure negligent doctors become accountable for their actions.
This comes amid an outcry over some surgeons whose negligence gets to the extent where a pair of scissors is left in a woman’s womb.
The High Court has over the years been inundated with lawsuits against medical practitioners who negligently cause the death of patients.
In most cases, negligent practitioners get away with murder because they usually cover up for each other.
The Bill will also put an end to the shortage of forensic pathologists, which is slowing down the investigation and prosecution of murder and robbery cases.
The office is expected to impartially carry out post-mortems, when necessary, and come up with forensic reports for use in court.
Coroners will also testify in court, replacing doctors who shy away from giving evidence for fear of being grilled.
The President, in consultation with the Minister of Health and Child Care, will be responsible for the appointment of the Coroner-General and the Deputy Coroner-General based on their qualifications.
For one to be appointed Coroner-General, according the Bill, he must be hold a qualification in forensic medicine, forensic pathology, forensic science or any other relevant qualifications.