In Nova Scotia, fatality inquiries are governed by the Fatality Investigations Act. This Act is concerned with investigations related to deaths in defined circumstances. Anyone with knowledge or reason to believe that a person has died under certain circumstances, such as violence, accident or suicide, is obligated to notify a medical examiner.
Following an investigation by a medical examiner, a fatality inquiry may be recommended by the Chief Medical Examiner to the Minister of Justice, in which case an inquiry becomes mandatory. The Minister may call an inquiry if it is determined one is needed in the public interest or the interest of public safety.
Deaths that occur in health-care facilities, custody or detention centres, deaths related to employment or occupation or those that occur unexpectedly when a person is in good health, when a person is not under the care of a physician, where the cause of death is undetermined or as the result of improper or suspected negligent treatment by a person are all reportable to a medical examiner and can be the subject of a fatality inquiry.
When the Minister orders that a fatality inquiry be held, the Chief Judge of the Provincial Court of Nova Scotia appoints a Provincial Court judge to conduct the inquiry and make recommendations on any of the issues identified in the Minister’s order. The judge’s findings shall not contain any findings of misconduct. The Fatality Investigations Act requires that the judge file a written report with the Provincial Court and provide a copy to the provincial Minister of Justice. Typically, this report and recommendations are also made public.
It is important to note that a fatality inquiry is different from a public inquiry. Public inquiries are governed by the Public Inquiries Act. They are called by the Governor in Council whenever it is deemed expedient to look into a public matter in relation to which the legislature may make laws. Public inquiries traditionally focus on uncovering facts and can make findings of legal responsibility.
Desmond Fatality Inquiry
On January 3, 2017, the bodies of Lionel Desmond, a veteran of the war in Afghanistan, his wife Shanna, their 10-year-old daughter Aaliyah, and Mr. Desmond’s mother Brenda, were found in a home in Upper Big Tracadie, Guysborough County. It is believed that Mr. Desmond took the lives of his family members, before he took his own life.
The fatality inquiry into their deaths began May 21, 2019, in Guysborough County. Due to the public health restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Inquiry moved to Port Hawkesbury in February 2021. Closing submissions from counsel and the parties took place in April 2022. The Inquiry proceedings are now closed, subject to a decision by the presiding judge to reopen the Inquiry to clarify existing evidence or to put additional evidence on the record.
Final Report and Recommendations
As per the Fatality Investigations Act, The Hon. Judge Warren K. Zimmer will file a written report with the Provincial Court containing his findings and recommendations. His report will not contain any findings of legal responsibility.
Work on the final report is continuing. Updates will be provided when Judge Zimmer’s findings and recommendations are ready to be filed with the Provincial Court. A copy of the final report will also be provided to the Minister of Justice and made available to the public on the Inquiry website.