Wright v The State Coroner  QSC 305
In November of 1982, Anthony John Jones disappeared whilst travelling from Townsville to Mt Isa. His remains were never found.
More than 30 years later a further coronial inquest commenced. Among those called to give evidence was Mr Kevin Wright. Wright did not wish to give evidence, and sought a court declaration that he did not have to give evidence at the.
Wright was relying on an old legal principle that a person does not have to give evidence if doing so would tend to incriminate them. That principle is more commonly known as the privilege against self-incrimination, and arises from common law, rather than laws passed by parliament. However, like other principles of common law, it is a right that can be removed or altered by parliament.
The key issue in this case was whether the Queensland parliament had successfully altered the privilege against self-incrimination by way of passing the Coroner’s Act 1958 (Qld).
FINDINGS AND CONCLUSION
For a common law right to be affected by an act of parliament, there must be ‘clear and unequivocal language’. Clarity of language has changed over time, and what was ‘clear and unequivocal’ wording in 1958 may well be anything but clear today. The court quoted Kiefel J (now Chief Justice of the High Court) as that it should be ‘manifest from the statute in question that the legislature has directed its attention to the question [of] whether to…abrogate or restrict [the right]’ (X7 v ACC (2013) 248 CLR 92, 153)
The inquiry into the disappearance of Mr Jones was made under s10 of the Coroners Act 1958(Qld). The Act also provides that a person who has knowledge relevant to missing persons inquiries can be compelled to give evidence about their ‘knowledge or information…relevant to an inquiry under s10’.
In practical terms, this means that any information you have relating to an inquiry into a missing person is information that you must provide to the coroner, even if it would tend to incriminate you.
There is a protection in s34(5) of the Act that protects people who must give such evidence. That section prevents answers to questions put before the coroner, from being used against them in both criminal and civil proceedings.