Monday, February 18, 2013

Eric Crampton: Coroner recommends

Search Google NZ for "Coroner recommends" and you'll find:
The Coroners Act 2006 empowers coroners:
to make specified recommendations or comments (as defined in section 9) that, in the coroner's opinion, may, if drawn to public attention, reduce the chances of the occurrence of other deaths in circumstances similar to those in which the death occurred; 
Persons appointed as Coroner "must have held a practising certificate as a barrister or solicitor for at least 5 years."

I'm sure that these are all smart and diligent people. I'm also sure that there is no required training in cost-benefit analysis in a legal degree.

The problem seems to be in the Act. Pretty much anything that could reduce the chances of particular forms of death can be recommended; there's no consideration anywhere of costs. It's fine to say that that's Parliament's job. But Coronorial recommendations carry some weight - people take them as being something more than "This is something that could save lives, but I have no clue whether it's worth it because I have zero training in policy assessment and cost-benefit analysis, so somebody else better figure out whether we'd be wasting a whole ton of resources in enacting it; moreover, the Act specifically asks me to just name any darned thing that might help even if it would cost a trillion dollars and save a life every fifty years."

I'd be willing to bet that a reasonable proportion of the above recommendations would fail any serious cost-benefit analysis. Mandatory high vis clothing for cyclists, licenses for nail guns, and mandatory skateboard helmets all seem exceptionally unlikely to pass any kind of "is this a reasonable policy" test.

This economist recommends that either Coroners get training in cost-benefit analysis, or start noting the limitations of their recommendations.

Update: Matt Nippert points out that the Chief Coroner wants it mandatory that government respond to Coroner recommendations. I would hope that the default response would be "The value of a statistical life for policy purposes in New Zealand is $3.8 million; the policy seems exceptionally likely to impose costs in excess of $3.8 million per statistical life saved. Please go away and come back with something reasonable."

Update 2: Russell Brown notes that the high visibility recommendation wasn't even based on the facts of that accident but rather on the coroner's "common sense". Egads

Eric is Senior Lecturer at the University of Canterbury. He blogs at  Offsetting Behaviour.


Kiwiwit said...

I recommend that coroners butt out of our lives.

Auntie Podes said...

Why not save all this trouble? Why doesn't one of 'em suggest, "Sheeple in Godzone are dying in their thousands. It is imperative that they be wrapped in cotton-wool at birth and placed in wooden boxes to protect them from all danger."

This would be cost-effective - no need to buy special clothes and boxes for burial and/or cremation.

Anonymous said...

These Coroner recommendations drive me nuts too, folks.

Is it just me, or do other New Zealanders feel the way we choose to live is under constant attack and we are having to fork out more and more to enjoy 'life' the way we choose?

Trevor Savage said...

A system for some form of coronial enquiry into deaths that are unexplained or violent/accidental has existed in nearly all civilised societies for hundreds of years.Not for us are people disappearing in rest homes, police custody or the like without questions, and an examination of numbers of deaths can identify trends and point the way to avoidance solutions. That is a legitimate and very important function of Coronial enquiries.
The flood of coroners' recommendations in recent years seems to have followed the restructuring of coroners in 2006, with the coroners now taking themselves very seriously, wearing gowns and being addressed as "Sir" or "Your Honour".But each inquest is an enquiry only into the facts of that particular death, not a Commission of Enquiry, and so the coroner does not have the bigger picture when he/she makes a recommendation. That is why the recommendations are not mandatory. But they need to be made so as to direct attention to possible changes and that is why the Chief Coroner is right to urge that there should be a mandatory response, so that problems do not simply get swept under the carpet. It may be that a cost benefit analysis shows that implementing a particular recommendation is not justified, But I would far rather see that than avoidable deaths being repeated.. How many times have coroners drawn attention to the dangers of children riding quad bikes? Still the carnage goes on, in the name, I think, of the farming industry being self regulating.