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Coroner has police report into Esther Wallace's death, but no "timeframe" on inquest decision

April 28, 2023

The Forensic Medicine and Coroners Court Complex in Lidcombe. Photo: NSW Communities and Justice.

By Peter Holmes

The NSW coroner is still considering whether to hold an inquest into the death of Esther Wallace, whose body was discovered near Federal Falls 12 days after she vanished into the night in late November 2022.

Any such inquest would probably be held in a local regional court rather than the Coroners Court Complex in Lidcombe.

Police have provided their report about the circumstances leading to Wallace’s death to the coroner, but would not comment on when the report was delivered.

NSW Communities and Justice told The Orange News Examiner that “the matter is still before the coroner, and we do not yet have any timeframe regarding when they will make a decision about whether an inquest will be held”.

The coroner is required by law to investigate sudden, unexpected and unnatural deaths to determine the identity, date, place, circumstances and medical cause of death.

In some cases the coroner can make recommendations following an inquest to improve public safety and prevent future deaths.

The NSW government states that “it is up to the coroner to decide what kind of investigation is necessary”.

It may involve:

  • a review of the person's medical history and the circumstances of the death

  • a post mortem and pathology tests

  • specialist reports from experts and external investigators such as police, doctors, engineers and the fire brigade

  • statements from witnesses, including family and friends

According to the Coroners Court: “Once the investigation is complete, the coroner will review all of the evidence that has been gathered in order to determine whether an inquest (a court hearing to explore any unresolved issues) is necessary.”

It states that most coronial proceedings “can be finalised … without the need for an inquest”.

At an inquest the coroner may call witnesses to give evidence of their knowledge of the circumstances of the death.

At about 4pm on Sunday December 11, 2022 a line of police and emergency services volunteers was moving slowly across the terrain when they located Esther Wallace’s body, about 2km from where she went missing.

Those involved in the search included Central West Police District, Police Rescue and Bomb Disposal Unit, Orange SES, Bush Search and Rescue (BSAR) operators attached to the NSW State Emergency Services, PolAir, Chifley Rural Crime Investigators, police from neighbouring Districts and Western Region staff as well as the NSW RFS, Cabonne Council, NSW Parks and Wildlife Service, Westpac Rescue Helicopter, Forestry NSW and volunteers from Cadia mine.

One of the non-police agencies involved in the massive ground search told The Orange News Examiner that the coroner had not requested a report from them at this point.

It is unclear whether the coroner is looking only at the cause of Wallace’s death, or whether the nature of the search will be scrutinised.

According to the NSW Judicial Commission coroners “are cautioned against undertaking an overly broad inquiry” into the circumstances of a death, “that is, the way in which it came about. R v Doogan; Ex p Lucas-Smith … states that an inquest is not a wide-ranging inquiry akin to a Royal Commission, with a view to exploring any suggestion of a causal link, however, tenuous, between some act, omission or circumstance and the cause or non-mitigation of the [death].”

During the early days of the operation The Orange News Examiner became aware of concerns about the style of ground search being employed.

Depending on the information available to those organising a ground rescue search, it may involve teams walking fanned out in a straight line through mapped grids of land. Or it may involve teams forming a perimeter around a particular area and moving forward so as to eventually meet.

There were also concerns within emergency responders about whether tracking dogs should have been introduced on the first day of the search.

In mid-December NSW Police backed their decision not to deploy tracking dogs on the first day of the search around Federal Falls, telling The Orange News Examiner “they were not appropriate at that time”.

“In relation to the notion of tracking dogs, police dogs were considered as part of the search operation, but upon advice it was decided that they were not appropriate at that time," police said.

“There were a range of risks considered around using the dogs, e.g., risk of snake bite, the heavy terrain, the environment being contaminated by the searchers.

“The dog uses scent to track people but because there were several people moving through the area (searchers and members of the public) the dog would not be able to distinguish the MP [missing person].”

Police typically file a Form P79A to the coroner.

“This report summarises the known details of the deceased person, identifies the next of kin, and sets out the circumstances of the death or the discovery of the body,” states the Coroners Court.

“Usually the Form P79A also informs the coroner whether a medical practitioner has been treating the deceased person in recent times, and the deceased person’s known medications. It will also usually outline the preliminary views of the police as to whether the circumstances of the death are suspicious.”

The length of time to investigate a death differs substantially from case to case and depends on the nature of the death and the number of factual inquiries and medical examinations or tests involved.

“Whilst some cases may be resolved within a few months, the majority of cases take considerably longer, often up to 12 months and in rare instances, even longer,” states the Coroners Court.


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