Dáil debates

Thursday, 1 June 2006

5:00 pm

Photo of Caoimhghín Ó CaoláinCaoimhghín Ó Caoláin (Cavan-Monaghan, Sinn Fein)
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I thank the Office of the Leas-Cheann Comhairle for the opportunity to address this very important matter. It concerns the ongoing tragedy for the parents, Brian and Rosemary, and the brothers, sisters and family of the late Frances Sheridan. It also has implications for the future conduct of inquests and highlights the need to bring forward the promised coroners' Bill.

There is an immediate need for the Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Harney, to explain the State's attitude to the second inquest into the death of Frances Sheridan and the total contradiction between the position of the Attorney General on one hand and on the other the Health Service Executive and the State Claims Agency.

Frances Sheridan died in 2004 following her discharge from Cavan General Hospital. At her first inquest last year evidence showed that the full recorded facts of her condition, including an earlier appendix operation, were not known to those who attended her in Cavan General Hospital before her discharge and subsequent death.

At last year's inquest the coroner directed the jury to return a verdict of death by misadventure but they returned a verdict of death by natural causes. This caused consternation to the grieving Sheridan family and raised profound questions which have yet to be answered.

The Attorney General ordered a second inquest and this decision was warmly welcomed by the Sheridan family. They look forward to the full facts emerging at the second inquest.

Then, like a bolt from the blue this week, the Health Service Executive and the State Claims Agency have tried to prevent the second inquest from going ahead by challenging the position of the Cavan coroner, Dr. Mary Flanagan. They have argued that she should not preside at the second inquest, having already presided at the first. This is despite the fact the Attorney General' s direction to hold a second inquest was to the Cavan coroner, Mary Flanagan, herself.

The coroner was presented on Monday with a threat from the HSE and the State Claims Agency that they would take High Court action on Tuesday unless she voluntarily stood aside. It seems this threat was not carried out but a solicitor for the HSE and the State Claims Agency again submitted in the Coroner's Court on Wednesday that she should stand aside. This is quite extraordinary. Is there a precedent for this demand? Is it not the norm that where a second inquest is required the same coroner presides?

The HSE and the State Claims Agency are arms of the same State whose chief law officer ordered the second inquest. It is mind-boggling that they should now seek to prevent that second inquest from proceeding. Both of these agencies, as well as the Attorney General, are charged with protecting the interests of citizens. Why are they acting at cross purposes?

The grief of the Sheridan family has been compounded by the events of this week. In the words of their legal adviser: "Their grief could hardly be compounded further, but it seems the HSE has managed to do that". The Sheridan family's barrister also told the coroners court that it was inconceivable to them that the HSE should threaten a High Court injunction.

I echo the call of the Sheridan family for the Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children and her Cabinet colleagues here represented by the Minister of State, Deputy O'Malley, including the Minister for Finance, Deputy Cowen, to explain themselves and order an investigation into the handling of this case.

Tim O'Malley (Limerick East, Progressive Democrats)
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I am taking this matter on behalf of my colleague, the Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Harney. I take this opportunity to express my deep condolences to the Sheridan family on the tragic loss of their daughter, Frances. In February 2004, Frances died after being discharged from the accident and emergency department of Cavan General Hospital. Last December, an inquest was held into Frances's death, presided over by the acting coroner for County Cavan. Following the hearing of the inquest, the jury returned a verdict of death by natural causes.

In January, solicitors representing the Sheridan family wrote to the Attorney General requesting that the Attorney General direct a fresh inquest pursuant to his statutory power under the Coroners Act 1962. I understand that the acting coroner also wrote to the Office of the Attorney General with comments on this request.

In April, the Attorney General advised the acting coroner that, in his opinion, it was advisable to hold a new inquest and, accordingly, pursuant to his powers under the Coroners Act 1962, he directed that the acting coroner hold the inquest. The acting coroner advised the State Claims Agency that a new inquest was to take place and that it was proposed to hold the new inquest on 31 May 2006.

It is important to advise the House of the role of the State Claims Agency in regard to matters such as these. Under the National Treasury Management Agency (Delegation of Functions) Order 2003, the management of claims alleging clinical negligence against the Health Service Executive was delegated to the State Claims Agency. As part of the overall management of clinical negligence claims, the State Claims Agency also provides legal representation at coroners' inquests for the HSE and individual practitioners employed by the executive. On learning of the intention to hold a new inquest, the HSE's solicitors wrote to the acting coroner indicating the HSE's concern as to whether it was appropriate that she should conduct the new inquest.

At no stage was it suggested that there is or might be any actual bias on the part of the acting coroner. Rather, the concern was that there would be a reasonable apprehension, in the light of the acting coroner's previous involvement in the case, that she might be biased. It was suggested that, in the circumstances, the most appropriate course was for the acting coroner to allow the new inquest to be conducted by an alternative coroner. The acting coroner declined the suggestion and confirmed her intention to open the inquest on 31 May.

Last Monday, the acting coroner informed the Sheridan family that the inquest would not go ahead on Wednesday, 31 May but instead would hear legal submissions only. This was communicated to the HSE and the State Claims Agency last Tuesday. I am advised that neither the HSE nor the State Claims Agency sought to obstruct the inquest or make any attempt to prevent it. The HSE and the agency fully accept the Attorney General's decision to direct a fresh inquest.