Dáil debates

Tuesday, 20 September 2022

Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

Coroners Service

10:10 pm

Photo of Jennifer Murnane O'ConnorJennifer Murnane O'Connor (Carlow-Kilkenny, Fianna Fail)
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I wish to ask the Minister for Justice about the coronial system particularly as it relates to the justice plan 2022 which commits to bringing forward nationwide coroner review proposals later this year to address identified issues and drive innovative change. My biggest concern right now relates to the absence of a coroner in Carlow district. We currently have 34 coroners in 38 coronial districts. Why is there not a coroner appointed in Carlow? There is temporary cover from Laois that is already three years in place. As the Minister knows, coroners are appointed by the local authority except in the district of Dublin where appointment is by the Minister's office. Where a vacancy arises in a particular coronial district and that district falls within local authority areas where there is more than one coronial district, the Minister's office may, following consultation with the local authority, direct another coroner from the same local authority area to assume the coronial duties of the vacant office. These can then be amalgamated districts. However there is no specific protocol in a case such as in Carlow where the passing of a coroner left a vacancy which has still to be filled and is currently being held by a coroner in a separate district for it to be filled from that district. There is no urgency to fill the vacant role and this concerns me.

Coroner districts within counties have been amalgamated from 48 districts to 38 in 2022. Carlow remains a district, although it is without a coroner. The legal requirements for a person to be appointed as a coroner or a duty coroner are set out in the legislation. Are there any plans to broaden this?

As the Minister knows, no person shall be appointed to be a coroner or deputy coroner unless he or she is a practising barrister of at least five years' standing, a practicing solicitor of at least five years' standing or a registered medical practitioner who has been registered other than provisionally or temporarily under the Medical Practitioners Acts1927 to 1961 in the register of medical practitioners for Ireland or who has been entitled to be so registered for at least five years. Yet there is no application process, no job site to which to apply, so what steps are being taken to recruit a Carlow coroner for a vacancy that is some years in existence? To date only two such appointments have been made, one in Kildare and one in Meath. My understanding is that there is a mechanism for the coroners service to recruit extra staff. The Minister might come back to me on that.

The Civil Law and Criminal Law (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2020 provided for the assignment and appointment of temporary coroners as part of the national response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Yet, Carlow remains without one.

Section 13 of the 1962 Act provides that each coroner shall appoint a deputy coroner, again in the case of Carlow, we do not have one. We have been promised many times comprehensive reform in the system but we cannot seem to get the right staff in place. I have argued for a review of the system, a widening of powers, a better system that empowers families left behind after a death, that provides more transparency and supports for those bereaved through suicide. I support calls for better data collection so that we can learn lessons better and for recommendations made by coroners to have greater weight.

In committee I called for a full-time coroner in each district reporting to the recruitment and resourced from a national coroners service with consistent standards of practice throughout the country and sufficient supports to ensure families left behind are supported in a most difficult time in their lives. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s plans for these vital reforms.

Photo of Helen McEnteeHelen McEntee (Meath East, Fine Gael)
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I thank Deputy Murnane O'Connor for raising this important matter and for giving me an opportunity to provide clarity on some of the issues and to outline what has been done to date. We have plans to do further work. As the Deputy outlined, the coroners service is a network of coroners and districts throughout the country. Coroners are independent, quasi-judicial officials whose function is to investigate sudden and unexplained deaths so that a death certificate can issue. This is an important public service in particular to the next-of-kin, to friends and family of the deceased. Coroners not only provide closure for those bereaved but also provide a wider public service by identifying matters of public health and safety concerns. As Deputy Murnane O'Connor rightly outlined, my justice plan 2022 commits to bringing forward this year nationwide review proposals to deliver a service improvement plan to address identifed issues, drive innovative change, enhance customer service and improve interaction with pathology services. Until I have that review, going into more detail is not possible at the moment but I am committed to doing it by the end of the year and will engage with the Deputy when I have that report.

I will outline what has been done to date because there have been many updates of the 2000 review of the coroners service related to the strengthening of the legal provisions regarding the work of the coroner. Since then there has been significant implementation of a number of those recommendations first through the amendments to the Coroners Act 1962, in particular, the Coroners (Amendment) Act 2005, which ended the restriction on the number of medical witnesses allowed at inquests, and the Civil Law (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2011, which provided for the restructuring and amalgamation of coronial districts and which the Deputy outlined. It has gone from 48 districts in 2000 to 38 in 2022.

The Courts and Civil Law (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2013 provided for legal aid and legal advice by certification by the coroner to the Legal Aid Board in respect of inquests. We then had the Coroners (Amendment) Act 2019, which clarified, strengthened and modernised the powers of a coroner in the reporting, investigation and inquest of deaths. The scope of inquires at inquest was expanded beyond being limited to establishing the medical cause of death to seeking to establish, to the extent the coroner considers necessary, the circumstances in which the death occurred. The Act also broadened the coroner's powers relating to mandatory reporting and inquests of maternal deaths, deaths in custody or childcare situations, as well as significant new powers to compel witnesses and evidence at inquest.

More recently, we have the Civil Law and Criminal Law (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2020, which provided, among other items, for the assignment and appointment of temporary coroners to act simultaneously with other coroners in exceptional circumstances. This was used in part of the response to the Covid-19 pandemic. There have been a great deal of change, amendments and Acts in the past decade or so to improve the overall structure and system but we are reviewing it now again to see what more we can do to ensure that it is the system that works as effectively as it can.

In regard to Carlow, Mr. Eugene O'Connor has beenin situas coroner to Laois since 1996. As deputy coroner for Carlow, he assumed the duties of coroner for Carlow upon the unexpected death of the Carlow coroner, Dr. Brendan Doyle, in April 2019.

As the Deputy has rightly said, the appointment of coroners to districts outside of Dublin is a function of the relevant local authorities. The Department and I are not aware of any plans to appoint separate coroners to these counties at this time but obviously, that is a matter for the council to decide and is not something I would prevent or stop it from doing.

It is available to the coroner for Laois and Carlow, Mr. Eugene O'Connor, who has assumed duties, to request that I as Minister for Justice would authorise the deputy coroner, where there is a deputy coroner in Carlow at the moment, to act contemporaneously, that is, in line with or at the same time as the work that he is doing. The option is there for him to request that I would approve such a measure. It is something that I can do and it may, perhaps, be something that the Deputy might want to suggest will happen.

10:20 pm

Photo of Jennifer Murnane O'ConnorJennifer Murnane O'Connor (Carlow-Kilkenny, Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Minister. I welcome this review and will definitely talk to the Minister about this. It is important that the Act also broadens the coroners' powers. That is very important and I have called for that at our committee. It is a vital role.

As the Minister has said, there is a deputy coroner in Carlow. Carlow needs its own coroner, however, which is something I am very passionate about and I have spoken to many people about it. As the Minister noted, we had the unexpected death of our Carlow coroner, Dr. Brendan Doyle, in April 2019 and Mr. Eugene O'Connor has been in situsince.

Overall, we need to ensure that this review gives coroners extra power and it would be important to have it done as soon as possible. We need our own coroner in Carlow. I will happily work with the Minister on this issue and I thank the Minister very much for coming back to me on it.

Photo of Helen McEnteeHelen McEntee (Meath East, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Deputy. Once again, I will engage with her on this issue and once we have the report and review, and have a greater idea of where we are going in what changes need to be made, we can continue to engage on that. As Dr. Jonathan Jacob is deputy coroner at present, it might be an idea for that request to come in. It may be the case that the changes are not being made on the basis that this review is happening and waiting to see its outcome. In the interim, it would be an option for me, as Minister for Justice, to authorise the deputy coroner, in this instance Dr. Jonathan Jacob, to act contemporaneously with the coroner who is acting for both Laois and Carlow at the moment, which I appreciate is not what people in Carlow might want. We will engage further on that and hopefully will deal with that.