Dáil debates

Thursday, 8 February 2024

Coroners (Amendment) Bill 2024: Second Stage


2:40 pm

Photo of James BrowneJames Browne (Wexford, Fianna Fail)
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I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

I welcome the opportunity to introduce the Coroners (Amendment) Bill 2024. The Bill is a necessary interim legislative amendment pending a broader review of the Coroners Act 1962. It should be considered against the backdrop of a public consultation process which concluded on 19 January.

The Coroner Service provides an important service to bereaved families who are often going through the most difficult time in their lives when engaging with their local coroner. There are many positive aspects of the Coroner Service, while there are also aspects which could be modernised. In this regard, it is important that a reformed Coroner Service in the future is family-centred, preserves all of the good elements that currently exist and modernises, where appropriate.

The Joint Committee on Justice published a report that examined the operation of the Coroner Service in February of last year. Subsequent to this report, on 20 October last, the Minister, Deputy McEntee, launched a wide-ranging public consultation process. Recommendations from the joint committee’s report were a most helpful resource for officials in the Department of Justice in compiling a consultation document on reform of the Coroner Service. The consultation canvassed a broad spectrum of stakeholders including bereaved individuals who have engaged with the Coroner Service. Officials are currently analysing the feedback and proposals. It is intended that proposals on a renewed Coroner Service will be brought to Government later this year.

The Department of Justice has established an advisory committee to support the consultation process. Members include representatives from the Coroners Society of Ireland, the Departments of Justice, Health and Housing, Local Government and Heritage, the HSE, An Garda Síochána, the Office of the State Pathologist, the faculty of pathology in the Royal College of Physicians, an independent expert and importantly members of the public who have lived experience of the Coroner Service. This committee has met and been consulted on a number of occasions including earlier this week.

On a short-term basis, the Coroners (Amendment) Bill 2024 will address the immediate challenges with the Coroner Service. In particular, the Bill ensures that an appropriate number of coroners can be appointed in the Dublin district with the consent of the Minister of Public Expenditure, NDP Delivery and Reform. Furthermore, it ensures that additional temporary coroners can be appointed, if required in all coroner districts nationally.

The urgency with which the Bill is being taken is due to the fact that a Covid-related legislative provision that provides for the appointment of temporary coroners is due to expire later this month in respect of the Dublin district. In the absence of amending legislation, the expiry of the existing section 11B of the Coroners Act 1962 in the Dublin district, coupled with the necessity for a coroner to conclude the Stardust inquests, a significant gap in resources would arise in the Dublin district. This would inevitably result in a negative impact on bereaved families who rely on the important service provided by coroners.

Section 5 of the Bill allows for the extension of temporary appointments of coroners for the Dublin district to avert a slowdown of operations. The changes to be introduced in this section will also provide greater flexibility for appointment of temporary coroners to all coroner districts, as and when required. An additional benefit of the new measures is that any temporary coroner under the new measures will be for a term not exceeding 12 months, which is longer in duration than the existing provisions which expire after only six months. These new provisions enable the Minister for Justice and the Minister for public expenditure to respond quickly when the workload of a coroner district demands additional temporary coroners to effectively manage the workload of a coroner district.

The Bill also provides greater stability in the Dublin district by providing for the appointment of coroners for the district on a fixed-term basis for a term not exceeding five years, which may be renewed once. This reflects the need to meet the requirements of a very busy district, which has operated on the basis of temporary assignments since 2016. This will provide security of tenure for coroners in the district who can potentially serve out a ten-year term, assuming their initial appointment is renewed. This tenure provision should be considered in the context of the consultation exercise on reforming the Coroner Service. It should also be noted that five-year terms are standard for many senior level roles in the public service. This Bill does not change the tenure provisions of coroners for districts outside Dublin. The tenure provisions of all coroner appointments will be revisited as part of the reform process. It is intended that appointments under the new provisions in the Bill will be made following a competitive recruitment process to be jointly conducted by the Department of Justice and the Public Appointments Service.

The Bill designates coroners in the Dublin district as civil servants of the State. Maintaining the independence of coroners in the performance of their statutory duties under the Coroners Act 1962, as amended, was an important consideration in drafting this Bill. Departmental officials engaged extensively with the Attorney General’s office in this regard. It is the clear advice of the latter that the designation of coroners in the Dublin district as civil servants of the State does not impinge on their independence. There are several examples of officeholders for whom independence is critical who are also civil servants of the State. These include quasi-judicial office holders such as the Deputy Master of the High Court and the Examiner of the High Court. The Director of Public Prosecutions, whose independence is beyond doubt, is also a civil servant of the State. It should be noted that there is no substantive change to the statutory functions of coroners on foot of this Bill.

The Bill discontinues deputy coroner appointments in the Dublin district. In all other districts, where there is only a single coroner, a deputy will still be required.

However, in the Dublin district, where there will be multiple coroners, the deputy role is no longer required. Another important aspect of the Bill is that it provides the legislative certainty necessary to ensure effective continuity of the Stardust inquests.

Turning to the structure of the Bill, it comprises 12 sections and its main provisions include the following. Section 2 provides that the Minister for Justice, with the consent of the Minister for public expenditure, will stipulate the terms and conditions under which fixed-term appointments of coroners for the Dublin district will be made. The section further designates coroners for the district as civil servants of the State and provides that any future appointments will be made on the basis that the position is effectively a full-time post. In addition to the above, section 2 provides that coroners for the Dublin district will no longer be able to appoint deputies, and any existing deputy in the district will cease to hold his or her office after the commencement of the Act.

Section 3 provides that future appointments to the district will be for a fixed term not exceeding five years, renewable with the consent of the Minister for Public Expenditure, National Development Plan Delivery and Reform for one term only.

Section 5 provides for the assignment or appointment of temporary coroners to any coroner district for a period not exceeding 12 months where the workload demands of the district warrant such. The renewal of any appointments made under the revised provisions is capped at three terms.

Section 6 consolidates existing disparate provisions relating to senior coroner designations in the Act of 1962.

Section 9 inserts a new section into the Coroners Act 1962 to provide for the circumstances in which persons will be ineligible for appointment as coroner or deputy coroner and disqualified from holding office as coroner or deputy coroner. Section 9 will apply to all coroner districts with an exception in respect of fixed-term appointees to the Dublin district. Such appointees will be governed by Civil Service eligibility criteria.

Section 10 will replace the existing provisions regarding the removal of a coroner with more updated provisions. Section 10 will also introduce important natural justice-related safeguards in relation to the existing removal provisions in the Act.

Section 11 redefines the definition of “coroner for the coroner’s district of Dublin”. By so doing, it makes the necessary changes to ensure the senior coroner currentlyin situin the Dublin district can continue to act as coroner for the purpose of the Stardust inquest.

This short Bill contains a number of important amendments to ensure effective continuity of coroner operations both in the Dublin district and in respect of all other districts. I thank Deputies for taking the time to consider the issues raised by this Bill. I look forward to hearing their comments. The Minister, Deputy McEntee, hopes, with the co-operation of all sides, that we can facilitate its swift passage of the Bill through this House given its priority nature and with a view to early enactment. I commend the Bill to the House.

2:50 pm

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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We will do our best to assist the Minister of State today.

Photo of Martin KennyMartin Kenny (Sligo-Leitrim, Sinn Fein)
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The Bill is welcome. Sinn Féin will not oppose its passage. We hope to see it speedily go through the various Stages. On the Bill itself, we all recognise there have been serious issues with the Coroner Service, particularly with regard to delays. Dublin has been the victim of many of these problems. This legislation will deal with Dublin specifically or almost entirely. The issue the Minister of State mentioned regarding the Stardust inquest is a key issue that needs to be resolved. I am sure we can have a sense of it working through to a conclusion, I hope, for the many families who have waited far too long to get a sense of justice and closure regarding that tragic event. For many other families, the Coroner Service is where they go to try to get closure and an understanding of what happened. As the Minister of State mentioned, the justice committee, of which I was a member at the time, sought to ensure hearings on the Coroner Service to look toward reform, change and making something positive happen.

Many people feel the Coroner Service is ad hoc in some places. That is not to say that the vast majority of work is not done professionally and well but there are questions. People have serious questions, especially about how coroners are recruited. In most cases, the coroner appoints a deputy, and when that coroner retires, the deputy takes their place. There is no open or transparent mechanism for recruitment. There are also issues regarding qualifications. In some cases, coroners are doctors and in others they are legal persons. We need clarity. The report from the committee at the time made a series of recommendations. We hoped to see many, if not all, of those recommendations implemented and brought through the Legislature but we are where we are. While this legislation does something to assist, it does not go near where the problems are or the issues that need to be addressed.

A key issue is what happens after a death occurs. For example, what happens when the coroner says there is a particular area on a road where five people have now been killed? The coroner does a report and there is no obligation on the local authority or whoever to do anything about that particular incident. Perhaps it is a death involving a piece of machinery or equipment used in a particular way. There should be a means by which the recommendation of the coroner actually has meaning to prevent future deaths. One recommendation of the committee was a threshold to reach the verdict, that there should be more information and rules established around all of that.

Linking the registration of deaths with the electoral register is a simple little thing that was brought in. Many of us know of people who have passed away and are still on the electoral register many years later.It should be easy to resolve that.

There were also issues regarding a central coroner service. Instead of it being done by each local authority, it should be done on a regional basis so the coroner would perhaps cover several counties. Therefore, it would not be an ad hoc bit of a job. It would be more permanent, well established and professional. That is a key aspect.

Regarding the implementation of recommendations from the coroner's report, in both England and Wales there is a prevention of future death report, which could have merit and should be looked at in the future. The other was the selection of juries and the process by which they are selected. There needs to be a more formalised method of doing that. We heard in the committee about some instances in which people rang up a few friends and a few people they knew to get them to come in as juries. We need a more formal, better mechanism to ensure jurors are from a wide spectrum and come from various sectors of society and age groups, etc., so that there is a more informed means of doing it.

Coroners need to have a professional method of doing things so that if a verdict comes out of the coroner's report, the family involved can feel it has all been done in a timely manner and an appropriate way, and that there is a sense of being able to deliver for people. A big issue is that the length of time people are waiting is very distressing for many families. There are also issues getting medical and toxicology reports. There are huge delays. Clearly, a lot of this is about resourcing. Adequate resourcing needs to be put in place. We also spoke about coroners and that some of the cases with which they and their staff deal are very distressing and difficult. There should, perhaps, be recourse to counselling or assistance for them to cope with the more harrowing experiences in the coroner's court. Work-related counselling for coroners and their staff should also be provided.

There was also an issue regarding legal representation. We see that in the Stardust case. In some situations, families feel they should have a legal representative. Often, in difficult cases such as Stardust, other sides have an army of legal representatives but families cannot afford that. Free legal aid should be examined in that respect. The legal aid scheme should be brought to bear for bereaved families who need representation in some of these cases - perhaps not all.

The committee also recognised the excellent work many coroners do and the excellent service they provide. The time it takes, the ad hocnature in some areas, the means by which coroners and juries are recruited and reports are compiled are all issues.

The service is mainly funded through the local authorities, but there are issues as regards proper funding. Coroners only get a payment per service and, needless to say, they may only be required for a small number of services in a year in some counties while they may be very busy in others. This does not contribute to the proper professional service we need to ensure throughout the country. While the measures brought forward in this Bill are welcome and need to be brought through, it is only a start, as I believe the Minister of State would acknowledge. I hope that the work done by the committee and the work that flows from the consultation process taking place at the moment will bring us to a place where we can have proper legislation that will professionalise the service and deliver for people around the country. We need an adequate and professional coronial service that will deliver for all the people.

3:00 pm

Photo of Johnny MythenJohnny Mythen (Wexford, Sinn Fein)
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We in Sinn Féin welcome the Coroners (Amendment) Bill 2024 and support its intention to supply extra coroners to the Dublin district and to provide temporary coroners to other districts when and where the need arises. As stated, this legislation was introduced as an instrument to create a legal avenue to allow the assignment and appointment of temporary coroners to the Dublin district during the Covid-19 pandemic. It is therefore important to state that the Bill should be viewed as an interim measures, with a full overhaul of the coroners process by the current Government to follow as quickly as possible and to be done as diligently as possible.

The last place any bereaved family want to find themselves is in front of a coroner's inquest, listening to the forensic details and, more often than not, the tragic circumstances of how their loved one or relative passed away. Although it brings truth and closure to their anguish and suffering, the time it takes for this to happen is far too long. The prevention of backlogs in pathology, autopsy and toxicology reports must be the top priority. Some families have been waiting for an inquest since 2019. Unfortunately, there is no rule or methodology to measure the anguish and prolonged torment families have to go through because of the current process in the coroners service. I know of a couple who lost their son in tragic circumstances. He was suffering from epilepsy and died in unknown circumstances. His brain was removed for examination and, months later, this couple are still waiting on the autopsy and toxicology results. That poor family are devastated and crushed under a system that needs immediate reform. The promised review must be urgently completed and followed up on in light of this legislation. It should incorporate some form of counselling for families. As stated by the Minister of State, a sea change is needed for the coroners to be more reflective of society and more conscientious of the people who must attend before them.

We in Sinn Féin believe the overhaul of the coroners system must be centred around the bereaved. We would like to see the Government take on board the recommendations put forward by the Irish Council for Civil Liberties and by the Oireachtas committee, including the recommendations that a formal jury selection process be established for jurors presiding at inquests and that an accessible process to appeal the verdict of a coroner's inquest be established. The Government must also take responsibility and provide adequate funding, especially with regard to staffing levels. This is one of the main issues being highlighted by the coroners themselves and would alleviate the unacceptable delays and backlogs bereaved families and relatives are experiencing.

We acknowledge the Government's recognition of the fact that the coroners system needs reform and that the Bill is an interim response to a system that is failing families in the Dublin district and beyond. We welcome the fact that this Bill will ensure the continuation of the Stardust inquest and security of tenure for coroners but it must be backed up by major reform of the coroners system, must have as its foundation the welfare of the bereaved families and relatives and must protect the rights of all involved in such traumatic circumstances. Sinn Féin will be supporting this Bill.

Photo of Aodhán Ó RíordáinAodhán Ó Ríordáin (Dublin Bay North, Labour)
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The role of the coroner is vital. Coroners are charged with the most sensitive and difficult cases. Deaths that are sudden, unnatural, violent or unexplained are reported to the coroner. As well as the basic investigative function of the coroner, there is a public duty to draw attention to the existence of circumstances which, if left unremedied, might lead to further deaths. There is an onus on the coroner to allay rumour or suspicion, to advance medical knowledge and to preserve the legal interests of the people and parties affected. It is a great responsibility to society in general but also to the relatives and friends of the deceased at a time of trauma in their lives.

When talking about the role of the coroner, I must make reference to the Stardust inquest that is currently under way. Families waited a very long time for that full inquest. Having spent time with the families from my own constituency, I know how it hard it was for them to feel that the State had not exhausted every avenue in trying to understand what happened to their loved ones. The dignity and persistence of the families in their search for the truth is truly inspiring. The Stardust case is unique and exceptional but the experience of the bereaved in cases being investigated is shaped by the coroner. The role is not just a technical, legal and medical one, but also a caring one. I am also thinking of the case of Terence Wheelock and of his brother, Larry, who is no longer with us and who was an inspirational campaigner for justice for Terence, who went into Store Street Garda station as a young man and did not come out alive.

The report of the Oireachtas justice committee has called for the system to be centred on the bereaved. It is clear that the majority of cases are handled sensitively and with great care by coroners across the country with families kept informed and their questions answered. It is also clear that there are large backlogs across the service. This only causes delay and distress to families. While I acknowledge this Bill is an effort to alleviate some of the pressures being experienced in the coroners service, the problem we face is that it does not adequately address what is a structural and legislative problem that absolutely needs to be corrected.

Let me be clear; the root cause is not the coroners but rather the Oireachtas and the Government. It is our responsibility to ensure that coroners are well equipped to do their jobs effectively. Families are waiting up to two years for an inquest. This is simply cruel. The temporary appointment of an additional two coroners for Dublin in response to the pandemic was welcome but it was a stop-gap measure. If we are honest with ourselves, this Bill is also a stop-gap measure, as pointed out by my colleague, Senator Mark Wall, in the Seanad. It is just the latest in a series of stop-gap amendments. What we need is fundamental reform of the coroners service. Simply put, the 1962 Act is generally acknowledged not to be fit for the modern world.

We are all aware that a public consultation on the matter has just concluded and I expect that the Minister and the Department will be working on producing legislation on the back of that. The problem we face is that we have been here before. In 2005, Labour Party leader and TD, Pat Rabbitte, proposed a short amendment Bill that fixed one particularly distressing defect in the legislation. This was accepted by the then Government and became law. At the time, the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform commented that he had produced a Bill to overhaul the system, which he had put before the Attorney General for observations, and that he intended to publish the heads of the Bill, of which there were more than 190, for public consultation. Before that, the previous Minister had already started a reform process and had established a coroners review group. That expert group published its report in 2000. The report included 110 recommendations to reform the service. The review, report and recommendations were published more than 20 years ago and yet we are still waiting on a full Bill to be published. We now have another stop-gap amendment and another coroners service reform consultation.

The Department of Justice now has a very substantial workload and we should not underestimate the difficulty in drafting such fundamental legislation. My question for the Minister and the Department is what are the obstacles in the way of producing the full Bill needed. Change is difficult and not without risk but even this amendment Bill has seen serious concerns raised by Eleanor Fitzgerald, president of the Coroners Society of Ireland. She has said that the Bill compromises the independence and functioning of the office of the coroner. It is important that any Bill produced is robust and that the Department is satisfied with it but the issues and difficulties within the coroners service have been ongoing for decades now, since even before the expert group report in 2000. The 1962 act remains the principal Act and the structure of the coroners service remains, in large part, as prescribed in the Act. If there are obstacles to reforming that Act, they should be brought out into the open and addressed by the Dáil and by those who provide the service.

The issues with the service have already been identified, consultations have already taken place and reports have already made recommendations. The frustration here is that more public consultation is only going to delay the necessary fundamental reforms taking place. Our fear about this Bill is that it may do more harm than good. I do not believe it is particularly well thought out and I am concerned that it does not address the problems and has not been agreed with the society. The independence of the coroner is an issue that needs the full focus of the Minister. If the Government is to press this latest stop-gap Bill, it should at least work closely with the society to ensure that the Bill can do what it hopes to achieve without undermining the coroners service. However, if the obstacles to the reform of the service are to be fully addressed, it must be in the context of comprehensive new legislation. There is no doubt that this will present challenges. Change is not easy, but we can no longer continue kicking the can down the road. At this moment, we see that the blockage is the failure of the Government to produce new legislation, a failure that dates back 20 years. We all want to see the backlogs cleared as the service is under severe pressure but I am not convinced another sticking plaster is the answer.

It is disturbing that the 1962 Act is still the principal Act in this area. Despite all the reviews and amendments over the years, we are still no closer to publishing a Bill. If the Government is serious it needs to make time and space to publish and implement primary legislation so we are not just pushing this issue beyond the next election when, no doubt, it would get backed up towards the end of the term of another Dáil. The public consultation has already taken place and the reviews have taken place. I ask the Minister of State and the Government to publish new primary legislation and to act quickly on the outcomes of the consultation in order that the House get down to properly addressing, assessing, scrutinising and passing legislation. If there is a fundamental reason the Government is afraid of doing this, the Minister of State needs to be frank about it. If there is an impasse, we should know what it is.

The role the coroner is a fundamental component in protecting everyone. It is crucial to the functioning of our democracy. I am of the view that it is more essential than at any time in the past 30 years that we bring the office into the 21st century.

3:10 pm

Photo of Catherine MurphyCatherine Murphy (Kildare North, Social Democrats)
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The Social Democrats will support this Bill, even though it is an interim measure. Ideally, we would want the main legislation to be brought forward as quickly as possible.

The Bill before the House is designed to provide, in the short term, for the continuation of the appointment of temporary coroners in the Dublin district to continue working through their day-to-day caseloads. It is appropriate that we should give sanction for that by way of legislation. That is what the Bill facilitates. Deputy Ó Ríordáin highlighted the Stardust inquest as part of the caseloads to which I refer. People have waited a very long time for that.

The Bill contains a number of provisions I would like to address and on which I would like to hear the Minister of State's views. Broadly speaking, there is a requirement to reform the Coroner Service. I am sure the Minister of State has had his attention drawn to the submission by the Irish Council for Civil Liberties, ICCL, to the Joint Committee on Justice arising from the 2021 report on this topic. The ICCL set out 25 points, ranging from media reporting of inquests to institutional racism, which mainly dealt with reporting in relation to Travellers, and the skill sets and training that should be considered in the appointments process relating to coroners. Media reporting is incredibly important. There is a sensitivity in reporting some cases, for example, those involving suicide. The reporting in those cases varies quite a lot from, for example, what happens in inquests relating to the deaths of those involved in gangland crime. The way in which a death is reported can have a double impact on people. This does not just happen in the coroner's court; it can also be the case in the Criminal Courts of Justice. I refer to instances where, perhaps, some of the people who were the perpetrators of a crime are not named but the person who has died is described. Usually and often, they are described from the viewpoint of the perpetrator. This can be incredibly hurtful and offensive for the family involved.

Sections 2 and 3 deal primarily with the status of the appointee and the terms of engagement by the State. It is proposed to move away from the title of "officeholder" to that of "civil servant". Coroners are described as being independent in their function and acting on behalf of the State in the public interest. The note provided to Members states that the status of the coroner for the District Court will be that of a civil servant of the State and that any future appointments will be made on the basis of the position effectively being a full-time post. I want the Minister of State to provide detail on this. A civil servant is a functionary. A civil servant operates under instructions, and there is a hierarchy. I am sure the Minister of State will appreciate the point I am making. What impact will this reclassification of the coroner's status have on the culture of the organisation of the coroner's court and the way in which other bodies such as An Garda Síochána interact with it? How is the independence of the coroner preserved in view of the proposed changes? Is this likely to make its way into the main Bill? Is this envisaged?

Section 3 looks to cap the tenure to a maximum of ten years by way of a sanction from the Minister for Public Expenditure, National Development Plan Delivery and Reform. Initially, it will be for five years and then the Minister could approve it for another five. The argument could be made that in most instances the maximum duration could be in place. There is a balance of argument to be made here. One does not want something to become a personal fiefdom but we do want to keep people who are performing their duties well in the most professional, efficient and diligent way, and who have a lot of experience. One does not want to cut that kind of career short where it is not justified. When the Bill was being drafted, were multiple terms considered even by way of open competition? For example, where a person had exceeded the duration can they reapply for their own job through the open competition? Perhaps the Minister of State will set out what the issue is in that regard. It may well have been gone through at the committee. As I am not a member of the committee, I do not know.

I welcome the provisions in section 5 regarding the ability to appoint temporary coroners to the District Court outside of Dublin. This ensures an adaptability or flexibility where that process is needed. I would like to hear more from the Minister of State on section 6 and the process by which the Minister will promote or demote, or where the person can be promoted or demoted, in the context of senior coroners in areas that will have multiple coroners in the district. The primary legislation governing this is from 1962, more than 60 years ago, and Ireland has changed dramatically in that time. I suspect that the caseload of coroners has changed in the numbers of cases they are dealing, in the complexity of cases, and in how those cases are reported. The main issue is that delays are kept to a minimum. Each case presented will always be a situation where there is some degree of tragedy for a family. Very often people want to have the formal processes concluded so they can then really deal with their grief without an impediment. A delay can produce that kind of impediment.

Photo of Verona MurphyVerona Murphy (Wexford, Independent)
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I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Coroners (Amendment) Bill 2024. I have highlighted on a number of occasions over the years, both inside and outside the House, the challenges when it comes to the provision of services within the system. These challenges are so very often related to recruitment and the numbers of personnel available to do the various different jobs that need to be done. Under the amendment this Bill will make to the Coroners Act it is very important that we will have a say in the appropriate number of coroners available and the possibility of employing additional temporary coroners if required. This flexibility is obviously welcome and very important.

The briefing note refers to the Stardust inquest and the necessity for a coroner to be available to conclude those such an inquest. The people involved in that inquest have been through hell and back and are trying to get answers. It has been a very long process since the incident occurred in 1981, at which time I was a child. Now, 43 years later, the anniversary of those awful events is traumatic for people when they have to be going on for this length of time reliving tragedies and waiting for answers. If this Bill can help to ensure those answers are more forthcoming as soon as possible then this is very much a good thing. Everyone would agree we must have a coroner available in the Dublin district to be able to undertake usual duties and that we do not want bereaved families or family members having to wait unnecessarily long lengths of time for answers. It is a difficult time. It is a traumatic time and it can be very stressful and emotional. Being able to deal swiftly with cases is very important.

We should ask a few questions of the Government and the Department in this regard. For example, should an event such as the ongoing inquest into the Stardust tragedy cause such strain on resources that we have to resort to panicked legislation and last-minute amendment? What was the procedure before temporary Covid legislation provided for temporary coroners?

I take the opportunity to welcome the granting of planning permission at Wexford General Hospital for the new 97-bed unit that has been spoken about for a long time. Obviously, the granting of planning permission means the bulk of the work is still to be done. I will be pushing to ensure that work is not put on the long finger, like the provision of an MRI scanner for the hospital seems to have been. We need to see the granting of planning permission acted upon immediately and progress made to have the 97-bed unit in situand operational as soon as possible. Delivery is what the people want. I would like to know what is happening with the MRI scanner. I remind the House once again that the people of Wexford, through the Friends of Wexford General Hospital group, raised €250,000 in 2018. Six years later, that money has not yet been spent. I am sure the Minister of State, a fellow Wexford man, will look for delivery of the capital infrastructure investment in the 97-bed unit at Wexford General Hospital.

3:20 pm

Photo of James BrowneJames Browne (Wexford, Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Deputies who contributed to the debate. I welcome the general agreement on the importance of the Bill and getting it passed in a timely manner. The Minister, Deputy McEntee, certainly will bear in mind the various issues raised by the Deputies in preparation for Committee Stage examination of the Bill.

The changes made by this urgent Bill are important to ensure there is a sufficient number of coroners and an appropriate level of service for bereaved families. I concur with Deputy Mythen's comments about the need to put bereaved families at the centre of this reform. The situation is particularly acute in the Dublin coroners district, where, later this month, there will not be a sufficient number of coroners without the enactment of the Bill. Families who engage with the Coroner Service are often going through the most difficult time in their lives. The service provided by coroners around the country is important for bereaved family members in finding out the cause of death of their loved ones. The Coroner Service often helps family members reach some form of closure following the loss of a loved one. It is an important service to the living. It is critical that the Coroner Service is resourced with a sufficient number of coroners for the death investigation process to proceed uninhibited.

The public consultation process on the reform of the Coroner Service closed on 19 January. There was a significant level of input from the public and stakeholders involved in supporting the work of coroners. In the region of 300 submissions were received, which demonstrates the importance of the service to so many people in our communities. Officials in the Department of Justice are beginning the process of analysing responses provided in the consultation process. Early indications suggest that while legislative change certainly is needed, there is also much that can be done in the interim. Information provided to bereaved loved ones regarding the Coroner Service is an issue that will be addressed following the consultation exercise. When all the submissions have been assessed and analysed, proposals will be brought to the Government for consideration later this year to ensure we have a Coroner Service that is fit for the future.

Within the context of broader reform of the service, this Bill is a necessary amendment to ensure full-time, fixed-term coroners can be appointed to the Dublin district. Existing temporary arrangements in the district are inadequate to meet the current demand. The Bill, if enacted, will remedy the currently unsustainable position. The more robust measures to be introduced in the Bill will provide the stability required for a very busy district and will modernise existing provisions in legislation. The Minister, Deputy McEntee, will work closely with the Minister, Deputy Donohoe, over the coming weeks to agree the appropriate number of coroners.

The Bill also provides for the appointment of temporary coroners in all districts nationally where additional coroners are required for the purpose of progressing death inquiries. Under existing legislation, the appointment of additional temporary coroners can only be made when there is a pandemic, catastrophic event or other occurrence leading to mass fatalities. The Bill provides for greater flexibility for temporary coroners to be appointed where the workload requires it.

This important and urgent Bill will ensure the Coroner Service in the Dublin district can continue to operate with an appropriate number of coroners. It will also ensure additional temporary coroners can be appointed to any district where a need to do so has been identified. With the co-operation of all sides of the House, it is the Minister's hope that, together, we can facilitate the swift passage of the Bill. The Government is determined that its passage will be a matter of priority.

Question put and agreed to.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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The Bill is not being referred to the select committee as the Government intends to schedule Committee and Remaining Stages in the Dáil next week. The Bill will proceed quickly.

Cuireadh an Dáil ar fionraí ar 4.06 p.m. agus cuireadh tús leis arís ar 4.09 p.m.

Sitting suspended at 4.06 p.m. and resumed at 4.09 p.m.