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Forensic medicine and the Court

14 June 2016

Forensic medicine and the Supreme Court share a special relationship; in addition to it being the Court’s 175 year anniversary, it is also 175 years since the first coroner in the district of Melbourne was appointed.

Following Dr William Wilmot’s appointment on 1 February 1841, and the gold rush in the 1850s, Melbourne quickly became a center in Australia for the development of forensic medicine.

James Edward Neild was appointed as foundation lecturer in forensic medicine at the University of Melbourne and a city morgue was established. Up until the mid-1800s coronial inquests were held in hotels and pubs ‘in view’ of the body which was usually stored in the outhouse or cellar until the coroner was summoned and a jury empanelled!

The colony’s first Coroners Act was passed in 1865, requiring the coroner to inquire into the manner of the death of any person in the district. It also gave the coroner the power to commit a person for trial if they concluded that a death constituted a case of homicide.

Despite the many legislative changes at the time regarding births, deaths and marriages, post-mortem examinations were not routinely part of inquests in the first few years of the colony (perhaps attributing to the lack of medical understanding of illness and disease at that time). However the need for specialist forensic expertise in the justice system came to the fore in a number of Supreme Court cases in the ensuing years.

As medicine and science advanced during the 20th Century, Victoria developed a new way to deliver forensic services; through the Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine. The Institute continues its important work today, with statutory responsibility to provide independent forensic medical and scientific expertise to the justice system.

The evolution of forensic medicine in Victoria and its critical role in maintaining public confidence in our criminal justice system is explored in ‘Forensic Medicine’, one of the chapters in the Supreme Court’s 175th commemorative publication: Judging for the People: A social history of the Supreme Court in Victoria 1841-2016.

Published in April 2016, Judging for the People can be purchased from the Supreme Court Library. 

Phone 03 9603 6282 for more information.

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