The Press editorial:
The decision of a coroner not to hold an inquest into the suicide of a New Zealand soldier in Afghanistan is beginning to look unfortunate.
While it is not unusual for coroners to decide not to conduct inquests into deaths that have already been subject to a well-run and thorough investigation, this decision appears not to satisfy members of the dead man’s family that the circumstances of their relative’s death have been adequately dealt with. A coroner, having decided not to hold an inquest, is entitled to change his or her mind.
The solicitor-general, as the chief executive of the department in charge of coroners, may also overrule the coroner’s decision. One or other of them should do so and a proper independent coroner’s inquiry should be held.
I’m not convinced that the coroner has made the wrong call. As the editorial says, it is unusual to have a coronial inquest when some other body has done an investigation. The fact some family members are upset is not a reason in itself. An inquest shouldn’t be seen as some sort of appeal board.
The causes of suicide are complex and it is seldom that any one factor drives a person to it. A long and detailed investigation into the soldier’s death has been conducted by a military court of inquiry. It has reported on the immediate circumstances of the death, which involved an emotional relationship contrary to military discipline.
The soldier’s family is dissatisfied, however, claiming that questions about the wider circumstances, including allegations of continual bullying and harassment of the soldier because of his homosexuality, have not been properly answered.
It is incredibly sad that the solider killed himself, and that somehow this outcome wasn’t avoided.
However from what I have seen the major issue wasn’t the fact that he was homosexual. It was that he had an unrequited attraction to another solider and told him about it – which obviously made things difficult. The original story said:
Later in the evening, Sergeant H, who family say Hughes did not get along with, confronted Hughes about the incident where he had embarrassed Trooper A.
According to the report, Hughes broke down, admitted he was gay, and had feelings for Trooper A.
Sergeant H organised a meeting between himself, Hughes, and Trooper A, where Hughes admitted to Trooper A he had concocted the incident with the female chef and reiterated his feelings for the trooper.
This is an issue which isn’t intrinsically tied to sexuality. If the attraction was to a female solider, it would also be problematic.
Few of us can control whom we are attracted to. I certainly can’t. But you can control whether or not you act on it, or tell people about it. In a number of former jobs I’ve had colleagues I was attracted to but would never have told them that as it would have caused problems in the workplace.
This is not to say the fact Hughes was gay and the attraction was to another male didn’t make the situation more stressful. I’m sure it did, and it is of huge regret that he ended up taking his life.
The report into Hughes’ death, prepared by an inquiry team that travelled to Afghanistan and interviewed 47 witnesses, does not record any instances of Hughes being bullied, mocked or humiliated, but his family suspect that was the case.
I think you need something more than suspicion, to claim the Army inquiry was inadequate. There is no proof at all that it was.
Now the issue is slightly muddied by the fact the coroner who declined to do an inquest wrote a submission to Parliament against the same sex marriage bill. There is a seperate debate you can have about the wisdom of a quasi-judicial officer doing that. But I don’t think that means he has necessarily made the wrong decision in not holding an inquest. Unless there is some proof that the Army inquiry was inadequate or missed vital evidence, I think the decision is the right one.