Law Week 2016 Justice Journeys

Terry Ryan

Terry Ryan’s fascinating professional journey to become state coroner in 2013 spans more than 32 years. It all started with a degree in social work from the University of Queensland in 1983.

It’s a common misconception that to be a coroner, you need a medical background. Terry describes his own journey—a mixture of law, social work, leadership and respect for the deceased’s family as just some of the skills he brings to his job.

During my social work degree I studied psychology, government and sociology. In 1981, I was given the opportunity to undertake an 18-week placement with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Community Health Service in South Brisbane. Many of the clients were homeless and here I first saw the value of advocacy in achieving positive outcomes for disadvantaged people.

My first full time position after graduating was in the (former) Department of Children’s Services in Toowoomba in February 1984.

It was 1984 and I was 21-years-old when I finished my social work degree—this was helpful in relating to the young offenders I was supervising, but working with families with complex needs was challenging, especially investigating child abuse.

My interest in law was strengthened by regular appearances on behalf of the Department before the Children’s Court in Toowoomba.

I was very anxious when I first went into the courtroom as a young social worker. I remember being distracted by the magistrate’s stamps which generally hit the papers well before I finished making my submissions.

I worked for Crisis Care in Brisbane from 1985. It was a place that provided a wide range of services 24-hours-a-day, including emergency financial help, referrals to refuges for women leaving violent partners and general telephone counselling, which encompassed calls relating to suicide. These experiences were very relevant for my future roles, particularly as suicide and domestic violence deaths are two areas that now take prominence in my work as State Coroner.

I decided to study law part-time in 1987 at the Queensland University of Technology (QUT). I was admitted as a solicitor in December 1991, working in private practice while studying a Master of Laws. I recognised the value of ongoing professional development studying subjects that were directly relevant to my work at the time like civil litigation, family and public law.

I returned to the public sector after being appointed to a new role in the (former) Department of Family Services. We provided legal advice to the Department and liaised with Crown Law.

This was a fascinating time to be working in government as many of the public sector accountability reforms arising from the Fitzgerald Inquiry were being implemented, such as judicial review and freedom of information laws.

In 1996, I joined the Department of Justice and Attorney-General (DJAG) as a Director in the Policy and Legislation Division. During my time in this team I was lucky to be surrounded by talented and hardworking lawyers who were able to meet any challenge in terms of the complexity of the work and the often tight time frames.

I was privileged to work directly in my policy roles with all levels of the judiciary including the Rules Committee, and then finally in directly supporting the administration of justice by our courts and tribunals as Deputy Director-General.

I was appointed as State Coroner in July 2013 following the end of Michael Barnes term in the role.

During Michael’s 10 years in the role, he helped create a modern, coordinated and accountable coronial system. I hope to be able to emulate in the coronial system some of the leadership and administrative skills demonstrated by the heads of jurisdiction I worked with during my time at DJAG.

I hope that my range of experience allows me to bring compassion to the investigation of deaths reported under the Coroners Act. Apart from in the court room, coroners are generally not involved in communicating personally with the families of the deceased. I am always mindful that each death is accompanied by a tremendous sense of loss. The skilful staff within the Office of the State Coroner, Queensland Health’s Forensic and Scientific Services and the Queensland Police Service work directly with that grief every day. We depend on them for the system to work. Coroners also have an important role in preventing deaths and I also hope that my experience has equipped me with the capacity to make informed recommendations that achieve this outcome.

Terry’s Timeline

1983 – Social Work Degree from University of Queensland

1984 – Joined the Department of Children’s Services, Toowoomba

1985 – Joined Crisis Care, Brisbane

1987 – Became a part-time Law student

1991 – Law degree from Queensland University of Technology

1993 – Joined the Department of Family Services

1996 – Joined the Department of Justice and Attorney-General as Director of Policy and Legislation

– Masters degree in Law from QUT

2013 – Appointed as State Coroner