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Forensic process

Medical examinations are carried out to help the coroner determine the cause of a person’s death. Even if it seems obvious, it is very important that the coroner is able to investigate exactly what happened.

Several medical examinations are commonly undertaken as part of the court’s investigation into a death including preliminary examinations. An autopsy may be conducted, but this is only required in some cases.

Preliminary examinations

Once your loved one is in our care, a doctor or pathologist will examine him or her. This preliminary examination is minimally invasive. Coronial Admission and Enquiries (CA&E) staff will answer any questions you may have.

A preliminary examination may include one or more of the following procedures:

  • a visual examination
  • the collection and review of information about the person who has died, including personal and health information
  • the taking of bodily fluid such as blood, urine, saliva and mucus—in some cases a small incision may be needed to collect these samples for testing
  • the taking of samples from the surface of the body of the person who has died including swabs from wounds and inner cheek, hair samples and samples from under fingernails and from the skin for testing
  • imaging of the person who has died such as computed tomography (CT scans), x-rays, ultrasound and photograph
  • fingerprints.


An autopsy, sometimes called a post-mortem, is a type of medical procedure performed by a pathologist. A pathologist is a qualified doctor specialising in pathology, which is the science that looks at the effects on the body of disease or damage.

The pathologist carries out an external and internal examination of the body. The person’s body is treated with great respect at all times.
Techniques similar to those used in surgical operations are involved. The major organs of the body are removed, examined and specimens are taken for detailed scientific and medical examination.

These may include tests for:

  • infection (microbiology)
  • changes in the body tissue and organs (histology)
  • chemicals, for example medication, drugs or poisons (toxicology and pharmacology).

These tests are carried out on samples of blood or tissue that are taken from the person’s body and retained for that purpose.

The benefit of an autopsy is that it can provide detailed information about the person’s health and condition to give an understanding of the various factors that may have contributed to their death.

Even if the cause of death seems clear, the person may have had a medical condition that was not obvious during their life.

If the coroner believes an autopsy will help the investigation, CA&E will contact the senior next of kin first. We will explain the process and answer any questions.

Contact CA&E on 1300 309 519 for more information about autopsies.

Objecting to an autopsy

The senior next of kin has the right to object to an autopsy being performed.

If a coroner believes an autopsy is needed to confirm the cause of death, we will contact you to explain the process and answer any questions you have.

If you intend to object to an autopsy for religious, cultural or other reasons, you will need to put your objection in writing addressed to the court, stating your reasons.

The written objection must be made within 48 hours of the coroner ordering that an autopsy be performed. The autopsy will not go ahead during this time.

The coroner will take your concerns into account and our staff will notify you of the coroner’s decision.

If, after receiving your objection, the coroner decides an autopsy should still be performed you can apply to the Supreme Court for an order preventing it.

You will need to do this within 48 hours of being notified that your objection has been refused.

You should seek legal advice and assistance if you want to make a Supreme Court application.

Requesting an autopsy

Anyone can write to the coroner asking for an autopsy to be performed.

If the coroner refuses, you can apply to the Supreme Court for an order that an autopsy must be performed.

You must make your application to the Supreme Court within 48 hours of receiving the coroner's letter of refusal.

You may wish to seek legal advice before applying to the Supreme Court.

Organ retention

Occasionally, a pathologist will recommend as part of the autopsy, that it is necessary to retain whole organs such as the brain or heart, or larger portions of tissue for medical tests to help further investigate a death.

CA&E staff will contact the senior next of kin to discuss this and the coroner will need to authorise the retention before it happens
CA&E staff will also need to speak to the senior next of kin about their wishes concerning what happens to the organs when the testing and examination is complete.

For further information about organ retention contact CA&E on 1300 309 519.

Last updated on 18 Dec 2018