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PROVguide 71: Inquest Records

Courts and Criminal Justice – Inquest Records

An inquest is a legal inquiry held to establish the cause of death of an individual. In Victoria up until mid 1986, inquests were held before a Coroner, in a Coroner’s Court. Since 1 July 1986 the State Coroners Office has assumed this function. Up until 1986 an inquest could also act as a committal hearing.

For the period up to 1 July 1986 an Inquest was held where a person:

  • Died suddenly
  • Was killed
  • Died whilst in prison
  • Drowned
  • Was executed (1864 to 1975 only)
  • Died whilst a patient in a lunatic asylum/mental hospital (excluding defective/retarded children between 1939 and 1959)
  • Was an infant Ward of the State and died under suspicious circumstances in a registered house (from 1883; regardless of suspicion 1890-1907 only).

The presiding officer at the Inquest was the Coroner, who could be a police magistrate, barrister, solicitor or a doctor. The Inquest may have been held before a jury and the Coroner could call witnesses. When an Inquest was held it was generally held locally and the registration of the inquest and storage of the records was carried out centrally by the Registrar General. In addition to determining the cause of death an Inquest could be held into the cause and origin of any fire that resulted in destruction or damage to property as defined in the Coroners Act. Prior to 1971 it was possible for an inquest to be presided over by a Justice of the Peace. These Inquests were known as “Magisterial Inquiries”.

From 1 July 1986 the Coronial function was assumed by the State Coroner’s Office and the State Coroner administers the state’s coronial system. Coroners continue to hold inquests where:

  • The Coroner suspects homicide
  • Death occurred in prescribed circumstances
  • The deceased was immediately before death held in care
  • The Attorney-General directs
  • The identity of the deceased is unknown
  • The State Coroner directs

Under this new regime a Coroner can investigate a death and make a finding without the use of a Coroners Court. The Coroner is still able to investigate a fire, if it is considered that the investigation is desirable and a Coroners Court Jury can be summoned as before.

VPRS 24 Inquest Deposition Files

Files in this series may contain an “Inquisition Form”, the official form of the inquest that includes the Coroner’s verdict, names of the jurors if a jury was summoned; depositions of evidence given by witnesses called and; if tendered, a copy of the Victoria Police report. The contents can also include exhibits, photographs, copies of autopsy reports and other medical reports. These are more common from the 1950s.

Please Note: The depictions in some photographs in this record series can be upsetting for some researchers.  Carrals are available for people who wish to view Inquest records in private.

Locating an Inquest Deposition File 1840-1985

To locate an Inquest during the period 1840-1985 use the following steps.

1. Consult the database Inquest Index, Victoria 1840-1985*. This database can be found on computers in Public Record Office Victoria Reading Rooms (Victorian Archives Centre and Ballarat Archives Centre).
2. It is possible to carry out a variety of searches either on individual fields (eg Surname or year) or a number of fields (eg Surname and given name and place). The most common search is by Surname.
3. Note the following information:
a. Surname and Given name(s) of the person you are researching
b. Reference number of the Inquest, and
c. The year in which the inquest is held.
d. A word of caution during the period 1840 to 1880 there are two sequences of “file numbers”, one for males and the other for females.
4. Order the file.  See PROVguide 8 Ordering Inquest Records for information on how to order online prior to your visit to the Victorian Archives Centre Reading Room.

* This database consolidates the information in individual indexes. It has been compiled from the original indexes and was published by Macbeth genealogical Services Pty Ltd in 2000. The database can also be found in public libraries, genealogical societies and historical societies.

Please Note:  Inquest Deposition Files for the period 1840-1985 are only available for research at the Victorian Archives Centre Reading Room.

Locating an Inquest Deposition File post 1985

All Inquest Deposition Files post 1985 are closed under section 9 of the Public Records Act.  For access to these records, please contact the Coroners Court of Victoria Information and Records Manager on 1300 309 519 or alternatively you can access the Court’s website at www.coronerscourt.vic.gov.au.  Information regarding access to documents can be found under “Court Processes- Access to Documents”.

For your request to be considered, you must complete an application form, Form 45- Application for Access to Coronial Documents.  This form can be found on the Court’s website.  The completed form can either be posted to the Court or emailed to coronerscourt.records@coronerscourt.vic.gov.au

Related Records

VPRS 10010 Body Cards 1959-1985

In addition to Inquest Deposition Files researchers might access these files. The files, despite their title, contain documentation created in the progress of a coronial investigation, including photographs.  Between 1959 and 1985 they document the investigations of the Melbourne Coroner only.  To access the Body Card files researchers should consult the Index to Body Cards (VPRS 5524).  The annual indexes can be requested from the Collection Desk in the Victorian Archives Centre Reading Room at North Melbourne.

VPRS 407 Fire Inquest Deposition Files 1858-1940

This series of files relates to Inquests conducted into the causes of fires by Coroners Courts throughout Victoria.  Contents include the “Inquisition Form”, depositions of witnesses called, police reports, exhibits and documents relating to the payment of a fee that was required for an Inquest to be conducted. To access these files researchers should consult the Index to Fire Inquest Files compiled by PROV Staff and available in the Victorian Archives Centre Reading Room with the Records Description Lists for VPRS 407. Fire Inquests after 1958 are found in VPRS 10010 Body Cards.

VPRS 30 Criminal Trial Briefs 1840-1978

For the period 1840 to 1950 where an Inquest results in criminal charges being laid the Inquest Deposition File will generally be found in VPRS 30 Criminal Trial Briefs.  Although the “Inquest Index” may have a record of the Inquest it generally will not be found in the Inquest Deposition Files. The Criminal Trial Briefs are basically the set of documents that make up the Crown Prosecutors Brief. The Inquest Deposition file forms part of this brief especially were the charges relate to murder or manslaughter. To locate the Inquest Deposition File a researcher will have to identify the relevant criminal trial brief that will be under the name of the person charged with the offence, not the name of the deceased.  After 1950 the files are found in VPRS 24 Inquest Deposition Files.

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