The lack of investment and development in the facilities for death investigation both medically and legally in the post war (WWII) period in Victoria had resulted in serious deterioration of mortuary and court facilities such that medical practitioners and judicial officers could hardly be expected to have an interest in taking up this type of work. This deficiency became increasingly recognised during the 1970′s and the early 1980′s and resulted in a substantial review (Norris Report) that recommended wholesale reforms to the coroners jurisdiction and establishment of a professional forensic pathology service.
The Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine is the specialist medical and scientific organisation that was eventually created as a response to this situation. Today it is Victoria’s statutory provider of forensic pathology and related scientific services, clinical forensic medicine and tissue banking. It is regulated primarily by the Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine Act 1985, and while we have a significant degree of autonomy, for government administrative purposes we sit within the Attorney General’s portfolio in the Department of Justice and Regulation.
Since opening its doors in 1988 when it occupied its current premises in Southbank, the VIFM has developed as it pursued its obligation to try and maximise the benefits for the community of its work.
The VIFM started its life as the provider of autopsy services (forensic pathology) for the State Coroner. Those services up until the mid 1980′s were regarded by a State Government Committee at the time to be in great need of modernisation. The VIFM took the view then (and takes the view now) that an autopsy is an event of great ethical significance as, amongst other things, it interferes with the body at a time when, for the family and friends, the deceased is still very much alive in their minds. This means a number of things: the deceased must be treated with respect, the death must be properly investigated and the autopsy (if there is one) must not be done for only limited, narrow purposes. Within the constraints of law and ethics, the autopsy is of such significance that it would expected that the State’s provider of autopsy services would make the benefits arising from the autopsy available for the community generally, to the greatest extent possible.
Accordingly, over the years, a number of related services have come into existence.
The Donor Tissue Bank of Victoria is the means by which VIFM, in accordance with relevant law and family wishes, provides tissue for transplantation. This includes skeletal and related tissue, heart valves and related tissue and skin.
Clinical Forensic Medicine is forensic medical services arising from the interaction of living patients with the law, especially the criminal law. For example, the examination of patients sustaining injuries that bring them within the ambit of the law; for example physical and sexual assault. This service previously existed within Victoria Police, but because of the synergies, it was decided to move the service to join with the Institute in 1995.
The VIFM has done this in a number of ways. We helped create and continue to support the National Coronial Information System (NCIS) on behalf of the Standing Committee of Attorneys General. This database of all deaths reported to coroners in Australia (and also New Zealand) helps death investigators and researchers better understand the scale and cause of mortality (and injuries generally) in Australia.
Undertaking an autopsy means that we know a lot about illness that the deceased suffered, and some of this may be of genetic significance to surviving family members. For this, and other reasons, it may be important for us to communicate directly with the surviving family through our Family Health Information Service. Learning as we do a lot about injuries and the circumstances in which they occur means that we are in a good position to identify opportunities to prevent such injuries and deaths.
Education and training of doctors and scientists is undertaken using the academic infrastructure of Monash University where the Institute, operating as the Department of Forensic Medicine, discharges its statutory teaching and research obligations.
For a number of reasons, enabled by our structural and organisational advantages, we have strong links with national and international agencies in the various areas we work in. These links have delivered opportunities for staff to be involved in providing our niche services overseas. For example, many staff were involved working in Thailand following the Indian Ocean Tsunami. Other staff have been involved in forensic pathology work in the former Yugoslavia, and in countries much closer to home. These, and many other related opportunities, have exposed our staff to work, providing us with experience and skills which have then been able to be applied in Victoria.
A significant example was the aftermath of the Black Saturday Bushfires in Victoria, 2009. Such involvement also provides a diversity of work which makes us a more attractive place for people with forensic medicine and scientific skills, which are in short supply the world over. For these reasons we are actively involved in Disaster Victim Identification and International work, including teaching and training, in a number of countries around the world.
All of the above is facilitated by our statutory and corporate governance arrangements, our ability to attract staff with international recognition and by our ‘state of the art’ technical and support services.