New coroner Deborah Marshall is a high flier

16:00, Mar 16 2013
Career path: New Auckland coroner Deborah Marshall was a police detective, flight attendant, Serious Fraud Office investigator and lawyer on her way to her current role.

Deborah Marshall giggles freely. It's not what you expect from Auckland's new coroner.

Just one of four in the city and 16 in the country, Marshall is a youthful-looking 57. She is also a former detective, was once an Air New Zealand stewardess, spent time as fraud investigator and trained as lawyer.

She's happy to talk about the Air New Zealand gig but is wary of making too big a deal out of a diversion that took her briefly away from an otherwise high-powered career trajectory.

She joined the police in 1977, in the days "when there weren't a lot of women". After becoming a detective, she was put to work dealing with rape and child sexual abuse complainants, "because the thinking in those days was that if it was a woman or a child making a complaint then it should be dealt with by a woman. You did more than your fair share of that kind of work".

After about nine years in the force, and while on honeymoon with her police officer husband, she decided that her career was "rather fraught".

On a plane, she glanced at the flight attendants around her and decided that, perhaps, it would be a better place for her to be.


"A normal job, where you just get on the plane and do your job well and you don't have to worry about things."

So, on return from her honeymoon she quit her job as a detective in the fraud squad and got a job with Air New Zealand, flying internationally.

"Air New Zealand didn't have as many flights in those days and it was quite glamorous in the sense that if you went to London you could be there for five days waiting to bring the plane back. Seven days in Tokyo, six days in Frankfurt."

But that sort of lifestyle can only be lived for so long and eventually she yearned to be back fighting crime.

"I think there comes a time, for me anyway, as a flight attendant, that you have kind of been there done that."

She abandoned the drinks trolley just as the Serious Fraud Office (SFO) was being established.

She joined as an investigator and worked on some of the SFO's biggest criminal trials including Equiticorp - which still ranks as one of New Zealand's most notorious white collar crimes.

It was while working on the case, with senior lawyers, she decided to do a law degree.

"Then I had to find a job that I could work at that would enable me to do the law degree. The privacy commissioner had an office right beside the law school. I applied to be an investigator for the privacy commissioner on the basis that I would continue part-time with my law studies while I worked there.

"I could get up from my desk and wander over to the law school for a lecture then come back to my desk and continue working."

She was soon picked up by Meredith Connell, the Crown solicitors in Auckland, to head a medico-legal team where she worked for nine years before heading back to the SFO and then finally to applying to be a coroner.

Coroners, she said, don't really leave their jobs and she is aware of what this means.

A bit like the pope, she joked. "Hopefully they don't all die on the job. They generally retire.

"When I saw the position advertised it was a good blend of my investigative knowledge, my medico-legal background and I thought it would be an interesting job."

With her feet barely under the desk, Marshall said she had already picked up on some public misconceptions - it is not all about hearings, there is a lot of work that happens out of the public eye.

And coroners don't spend much time in a morgue, unless they feel the need to. "There might be an occasion where you want to, to understand what has happened or go and view the body where it has been found or whatever, but there is certainly no obligation to."

It is also, now, a 24-hour job. That is, once every four months Marshall, like all other coroners, will be required to be available to a new call centre.

There is now one central number that officials can ring at any time of the day to check whether the coroner will want to take jurisdiction over a case.

"My understanding is that the staff at the centre are quite kind on you and do let you get some sleep," she said dryly.

Marshall is used to dealing with death, but is not apathetic about it.

"In common with most police officers I have dealt with death quite a lot, whether it be with viewing the body or contacting the next of kin, interviewing witnesses or whatever.

"In those days if someone died and they went to the Auckland mortuary and it was a female body it had to be received by a female police officer. So I did deal with quite a few deaths in that way as well as investigating it. So from that point of view, I don't think you would ever get used to it, but it's not as though it is new to me."

Marshall said she had already developed a lot of faith in the coronial process.

"Everyone that is involved tries to give a lot of dignity to the body so it's not a process that you should be afraid of. It's not at all ghoulish. It's just a process that you have to go through and everyone tries to make it as easy on the family and next of kin, and loved ones, as they can.

"Everyone I have dealt with so far treats the body with a great deal of dignity and just doing a job, and getting on with it."

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