Thursday, 15 December 2005
Coroners (Amendment) Bill 2005: Second Stage.
The Bill has a very specific focus, namely, to address certain deficiencies in the current law pertaining to the conduct of an inquest by a coroner. These deficiencies, including the restriction on the number of medical witnesses and the outdated sanction for non-attendance of a witness or juror, have, albeit in a limited number of cases, combined to inhibit the conduct of fair inquests in a manner sufficient to inform the family and relations of a deceased person and society at large. The Bill contains some amendments, which I proposed in the Lower House. These are largely of a technical nature and were agreed to. The Government agrees with the proposal to support the Bill as it now stands.
In recent months, certain cases have helped to highlight the particular inadequacies of the current law as set out in the Coroners Act 1962, not least the case to which some publicity was given, namely, that of the Nowlan family and their child, Pierce. Since these pertinent cases are still current, the Seanad will appreciate that it would not be appropriate for me to discuss the details at this time but I know that they are very sad cases.
The Seanad will be aware that the Government's legislative programme, announced at the beginning of the session, contained a commitment to replace the 1962 Act with a modern code of law, to establish a coroner service and to transform the organisation of coroners. My proposals for a Bill have been with Departments and the Attorney General for necessary observations and I expect to be in a position to bring them to Government before the end of the year. I do not wish to anticipate its decision. However, if there is agreement, I intend to publish the, more than 90, heads of a very large and comprehensive Bill for public consultation purposes during the drafting process.
The coroner service is one of the oldest public offices of State in the common law system. Its origins date back many hundreds of years. Prior to the Act of 1962, a Coroners Act 1927 was introduced by the Free State. My predecessor as Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy O'Donoghue, began the process of reform that is now coming to an end. He established an expert working group, the coroners review group, to examine all aspects of the coroner service with a view to bringing forward recommendations for reform. The report was published in December 2000. It contained 110 recommendations covering a wide range of issues. The work of the review group was added to by the subsequent report of the coroners rules committee, which was published in November 2003.
The Coroners Society of Ireland, as the body which represents coroners, has been active in the process of reform, for which I thank it. I met the society on a number of occasions in recent years and there continues to be ongoing contact, as well as meetings with departmental officials, to advance the reform process. The key objectives of the comprehensive Bill that I intend to bring to Government, in accordance with the programme for Government, will be to provide for considerable updating and streamlining of the death investigation and of post mortem and inquest procedures to ensure a better and more proper service than is currently possible under the Coroners Act 1962.
To achieve these objectives, I am focussing on two critical elements in the reform of the coroner service. These include widening of scope of the inquest and developing optimum structures and administration for a modern coroner service. The central element of a modern death investigation service must be to allow sufficient scope to the coroner to carry out the best possible investigation. The 1962 Act, and a subsequent interpretation of its intention and scope by the Supreme Court in the cases of Greene v. McLoughin and the Eastern Health Board v. Farrell, provided for a restrictive approach to the examination of how people died. The examination is limited to establishing the proximate medical cause of death. Such a limitation is no longer appropriate in light of the developments in medical care and treatment since 1962 and it increasingly threatens to bring the inquest process into disrepute. We must now move to expand the scope of the coronial investigation. We must require that the coroner seek to establish, in so far as is practicable, the circumstances in which the deceased met his or her death.
Widening the scope of the coroner's investigation was recommended by the review group, reflects the jurisprudence of the European Court of Human Rights and is consistent with developments in other common law jurisdictions. A series of judgments in the European Court of Human Rights must, in any development of my Bill, be taken into account to ensure compliance with the convention. These judgments interpret Article 2 of the convention as providing for a more extensive investigation of the circumstances of death beyond the strict "how in the particular circumstances" question, which is the substance of an inquest under existing law. They indicate that a certain extension of the scope of an inquest is now required if Ireland is to meet the obligations of the convention. However, any proposed extension of the coroner's investigation would have to be balanced by maintaining the prohibition on explicit determination of questions of criminal liability at an inquest.
From any widening of the scope of an inquiry, there would be knock-on developments. These would include no arbitrary restriction on the number and type of medical or other witnesses who can be summoned to appear at an inquest, increased sanctions for those who refuse to co-operate with a coroner's investigation into a death, powers of compellability for the coroner similar to those of a tribunal of inquiry, expressly stated powers for a coroner in respect of control of the body of the deceased and other matters — including power of entry and seizure — greater involvement of the coroner on the movement of bodies in and out of the State and, in a case where the coroner is concerned, that a "fact of death" certificate be held by an undertaker before disposal of a body.
The coroners review group envisaged certain powers for the coroner similar to those available to a tribunal of inquiry. It is suggested that procedures relating to evidence, access to documents, etc., will have to be developed in that regard in respect of the coroner's inquest. The right of access to documentation by all the parties concerned could become a critical point, particularly in regard to hospital, Garda or other State agency reports. There would be a need to respect the constitutional and legal rights of witnesses similar to the situation at a tribunal. We need to ensure consistent and efficient procedures in light of a new legal situation, which would have resource implications. It could not be assured under the current ramshackle coronial system.
The primary concern of the coroners review group was to ensure that a high quality coroner service, with optimal resources and supports, be developed. To achieve that outcome, it recommended a comprehensive overhaul and modernisation of the service. As regards the number of coroners, the review group envisaged an evolution to a regionalised structure where there would be fewer than the current 48 coronial districts provided for in the 1962 Act. I am satisfied that the current organisation of coroners must be reformed. The proposed Bill that I have advanced for consideration by the Government will address all the policy issues, including best practice in the law on coroners, their organisation and support structures.
In regard to the Bill before us, as I said during the Second Stage debate in the Dáil, I was, in effect, confronted by a choice. I could have chosen to table my own breakout Bill with this set of provisions in it along the lines being considered today, or I could have presented a full Bill of the type which is being finalised. My view was that neither the Dáil nor the Seanad was likely to deal with two coroners Bills in the lifetime of either House. We are facing a general election in the next 14 to 18 months. I am doubtful whether a short Bill of this kind would have survived the predictable criticism that would be levied that I was not addressing the wider issues of radical reform which exist. Therefore, I very much welcome this Bill because it is an agreed remedial measure which allows the major reform project to advance in parallel with it. It solves the immediate injustices that would flow from leaving the law as it stands while I proceed with the project of major reform.
The short Bill has, I believe, benefited from the amendments I proposed, which are of a technical nature. The Bill, as originally introduced by Deputy Rabbitte in the other House, proposed to treat equally as regards penalty non-attending jurors and non-attending witnesses. As Senators will note from the Bill, that has been changed. Clearly, it is much more serious if a relevant witness says "I will not attend" than if a juror decides that a football match is more important than answering a summons. To deal with those two situations with the same penalties would be somewhat unfair. I agree with Deputy Rabbitte that the current derisory penalties meant, in effect, that the price of a taxi fare was the maximum fine that could be imposed, and that too was unfair.
I am confident that the abolition on the restriction on the number of medical witnesses together with the updated level of sanctions for non-attendance and non-co-operation of a juror or witness will enhance the role of a coroner in his or her investigation in the interim number of months until this and the other House have an opportunity to deal with the major Bill that is approaching finality.
I am happy to support the Bill as it now stands. I will not be proposing any amendments to it in this House. I congratulate Deputy Rabbitte for bringing forward the Bill in the Dáil and Senator Tuffy for her party's role in getting this Bill before this House. I want to say to the Nowlan family that while this measure cannot undo the past I believe it can stand as an assistance to them, and to people in similar circumstances to those in which they have found themselves, that something can be done. It is useful on the last day of the legislative term——
Senators have another day to go in this House. It is useful in the last days of the legislative term and in the Christmas spirit that all parties should get together and engage in a good piece of non-adversarial law reform. I am grateful to the movers and drafters of this Bill for allowing me to do that.
I thank the Minister, his staff, the Government and the Leader of the Seanad for facilitating the bringing forward of this legislation, its speedy passage through the two Houses and for the additions to the legislation made by the Minister and the Department.
I understand the Minister was very courteous to the family involved in the case that lies behind this legislation. That family are from Saggart in my constituency. I express sympathy to the family at this stage for all they have gone through and for the circumstances underlying their case.
As the Minister said, the Bill was promoted by the Labour Party leader, Deputy Rabbitte, in the Dáil. It was brought forward by him to deal with problems in the Coroners Act 1962 in regard to the case of the Nowlan family but also in regard to an issue that has been identified in other cases. In general, issues need to be addressed. As the Minister said, it has been introduced in the context of a more comprehensive reform that is needed and planned by him, on which he has elaborated here today and yesterday in the other House. He outlined that he intends to publish heads of a Bill and have further consultation on the proposed legislation. He explained that it would be difficult to bring forward a comprehensive Bill as a matter of urgency to deal with the issue with which we are dealing in this Bill and agreed with my party that this is an issue of priority that needs to be addressed now.
The Minister spoke about his plans to reform the legislation and the need to widen the scope of the Coroner's Court and the coroner service. This is one of the main issues that need to be addressed. It arises from the recommendations of the expert working group on the coroner service. Even within the existing scope of the coroner service it is obvious that this type of amendment needs to be made. That is the reason there was this level of consensus around the legislation.
As has been explained, the particular case involves a young child, Pierce Nowlan of Saggart, who was admitted to Our Lady's Hospital for Sick Children in Crumlin last October to have a device fitted into a vein that would have allowed the regular injection into his blood of factor 8, a clotting agent. During the procedure, it seems an artery was inadvertently punctured as surgeons were attempting to access the vein where the device was to be fitted. Pierce bled from a hole in this artery into the left side of his chest. Subsequently, the oxygen flow to his brain was adversely impacted and he died as a result.
The inquest into this case began in July of this year but the coroner had to adjourn it on a number of occasions, most recently in November. The coroner raised concerns at that stage about the Coroners Act 1962 and called on the Government to introduce an amendment to the legislation lifting the restriction as soon as possible. He raised general concerns which are also important in regard to this legislation. He said that present circumstances ran contrary to the rights of all involved under the Constitution for access to natural justice, fair procedures and due process. I will not go into the provisions of the Act, but a number of concerns about it have been raised during the years. That is one of the reasons the expert working group on the coroner service was set up.
In addition to the Dublin city coroner raising concerns about the legislation and this particular provision which restricted the number of medical witnesses to two, concerns were also raised by Mr. Justice Hardiman. In the case of the Eastern Health Board v. Farrell, he said that section 26 of the Coroners Act was in his view "a serious obstacle to the proper discharge of the statutory duty of a coroner in the more complex type of inquest". He continued, "If a coroner feels that the question of how the death occurred cannot be answered without further evidence, it seems remarkable that he cannot obtain it".
The Minister mentioned that he had concerns about the provision and that he felt it might not be in compliance with the European Convention on Human Rights and so on.
It is clear there is a need to introduce this provision. For example, a patient in a hospital could be treated by a number of different doctors with different specialties over time — one can imagine such a case. It is also clear there could be a need to call many medical witnesses to an inquest into a single case. It may not have been an urgent issue in the past, but now that there have been so many technological advances in medicine and hospital doctors have many specialties, it is obvious there is a need to broaden the ability of coroners to call many witnesses to inquests.
I would like to speak briefly about some of the provisions of the Bill. The main purpose of the Bill is to repeal section 26(2) of the Coroners Act 1962, which provides that a maximum of two medical witnesses can be called to an inquest. As Deputy Rabbitte said in the Dáil, it is "universally accepted" that the restriction in question is "unwarranted and unfair". It is being removed so that an unlimited number of medical witnesses can be called. The Minister, Deputy Michael McDowell, has accepted the Labour Party's proposal to amend the section of the 1962 Act that makes it an offence to fail to attend an inquest at the specified time and date. Section 1 of the Bill will increase the fine imposed on a juror in such circumstances to €500, which is more prohibitive. During last night's debate in the Dáil, the Minister amended the Bill to provide that the fine that will be imposed on a witness in such circumstances will be €3,000.
The Minister also decided to delete the section of the original Bill, which was proposed by the Labour Party, that provided for the enforcement of a coroner's request to a person to attend an inquest. He said he intends to address that aspect of the matter in some future comprehensive legislation. The Labour Party has accepted the Minister's reasonable approach because it understands that a limited number of provisions can be put in place at this point. As the issue of enforcement is more complex, it may be more appropriate to deal with it following further consultation and examination. I understand the Minister's decision to amend the Bill by removing section 2 of the original Bill.
I again thank the Minister. Members of the House often complain that our work is not covered by the media and it is possible that this legislation will not be the subject of much media coverage. The Bill is a prime example of the constructive work that is done by those of us who take seriously our important role as legislators. A legislative gap that needs to be filled as speedily as possible has been identified. We are working together to that end, which demonstrates that constructive work is done by Members on all sides of the House. We do a great deal of legislative work that is separate to the cut and thrust of debates which take place along Government and Opposition lines. The Minister has often accepted amendments, which have been tabled by the Labour Party and other parties, during debates on other Bills. Such activity is not the subject of a great deal of media coverage. I take our role as legislators seriously because I feel it is important. The work being done today is very important as well.
I would also like to welcome the Coroners (Amendment) Bill 2005. The Minister has reminded the House that the coroners review group has produced 110 recommendations, which are being examined by the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform. This legislation has been produced with haste to meet the needs of the Nowlan family and other families which have found themselves in similarly unfortunate circumstances. I welcome the form of the Bill, on which I will comment shortly. I do not doubt that the more comprehensive Bill that will be produced in the future, like the legislation before the House today, will empower coroners to fulfil properly and adequately their roles and responsibilities. They deserve to be given powers to administer their jurisdictions and meet their responsibilities which are in parallel with the powers of those who administer courts.
This technical Bill amends the Coroners Act 1962 in three significant ways. First, it removes the limit on the number of medical witnesses who can be called before a coroner's inquest. There will not be any such limit under this legislation. I understand the logic of the restriction in the 1962 Act of the number of medical witnesses who can be called to two. In fact, just one such witness was allowed to be called in most cases, unless there was a need for a further witness. What will happen if a coroner is faced with conflicting medical evidence at an inquest? It is always important for families to ascertain precisely what happened to their loved ones. Is there any scope for some difficulties in that regard? If I try to rationalise it, I presume that a coroner will call a third or fourth medical witness to get some clarification. This aspect of the matter needs to be monitored although it is clear that I subscribe to this provision. The existing restrictions under the 1962 Act mean that if a medical witness does not give adequate evidence to a coroner, for whatever reason, the conclusions reached at that inquest are insufficient.
The second way in which the Coroners Act 1962 is amended involves the repeal of the outdated fine of just £5, which is imposed on a person who fails to attend an inquest. When we are providing for monetary penalties in legislation, I often wonder whether we should link them to inflation so they increase automatically and the legislation does not have to be amended in the future. Similar provisions are in place in many other areas of activity. It strikes me that we should include a measure of that nature in the Bill before the House.
The third significant amendment of the 1962 Act will empower coroners when they are issuing summonses to witnesses. The amendment to which the Minister alluded, which provides that a person can be summonsed by means of registered post, is eminently sensible. Our postal service is reasonably reliable——
——and one hopes it is absolutely reliable when letters are registered. The provision in question is a good one because there can be difficulties in serving summonses by hand. For example, witnesses have to be sought out individually. It is necessary and sensible to provide that coroners can examine witnesses under oath. I wonder why such a provision has not always been part of the process. Similarly, it is right that coroners will be allowed to order the production of any document.
I welcome the increased penalties — larger fines and terms of imprisonment of up to six months — which will be applied under this legislation if witnesses or jurors fail to attend an inquest or refuse to take the oath. I specifically welcome the provision whereby a person who is called as a witness, but fails to co-operate properly with the coroner, can be found to be in contempt and have penalties imposed on him or her as a consequence. It will also be possible for a coroner to go to the High Court to seek an order to ensure that there is compliance. Stricter penalties can be imposed for contempt of the High Court. That is a good provision.
The Minister has kept us busy during the past 12 months an I am sure the spokespersons on justice will concur. Sometimes he belies his reputation where he takes a Bill introduced by an Opposition party and it is testament to the manner in which he treats the House. He is accommodating to all sides of the House in regard to suggestions made or amendments tabled. He evaluates them and if he considers they are worthy of inclusion he is prepared to take them on board. His explanations to the House are expansive on all matters coming before us. He fully utilises the Houses of the Oireachtas in the manner for which they were intended as a forum for democracy. I wish to put that on the record because——
I will not say it is unique but it is not always the usual role that is adopted by Ministers of all political persuasions. I wish the Minister and his family a happy and holy Christmas as this is the last opportunity I will have to do so at this side of Christmas.
We welcome the introduction of the Bill. We have long been supporters of reform in the area of coroners and compliment the leader of the Labour Party in initiating the Bill in the other House. Senator Brian Hayes has briefed me on the need for the Bill and how it affects the Nowlan family. The Nowlan family deserves credit for their campaign on this matter. I understand they are in the Visitors Gallery.
The Minister mentioned that the Coroners Act 1962 is in dire need of substantial reform. Certainly the working party that reported in October 2004 outlined more than 100 recommendations which are in need of attention. He said the Bill being adopted today is a remedial measure. Given that he said another coroners Bill may not be introduced in this session, can I take it that he has given up at this stage or that there will be a commitment in the new year——
It is welcome that we will have a full coroners Act before Easter because it is an area that needs attention, as the Minister's working group has alluded to already. I thank the Minister for accepting the Bill and his co-operation. It is necessary that we all co-operate in a case such as this to address the problem that has arisen. I commend the Bill.
I welcome the Minister to the House and thank him for coming so expeditiously to deal with this matter that was first raised with him by Deputy Rabbitte. I single out Deputy Rabbitte's involvement in this more than anyone because he was the person who, when the case was first raised with us as constituency politicians, decided to take the legislative route. It is to his credit that he has managed to get the Bill through the other House so swiftly, with the Minister's full backing and support. Deputy Rabbitte needs to be commended for that, not only as the leader of his party but also as a constituency representative.
When I raised the matter with the Leader of the House last week she kindly informed me that time would be provided for the Bill this week to ensure it was put through the House before Christmas. The Nowlan family need to hear that out of the tragedy concerning their son, Pierce, hopefully some good will come in terms of the amended legislation going through the House today. They are to be commended for the bravery they have shown and their sense of public spirit in ensuring that their circumstance, tragic as it is and was, will lead to some positive reform of the law. As a relatively small group of citizens they have also shown an ability over a short period to affect a change in the law as a result of their participation in and initiation of a campaign. They are to be commended not only for dealing with their own issue, tragic as it is, but also the ramifications it will have for others. That it is coming at this time of the year is significant.
This is a legislative assembly and it is not just here to discuss statements on lawn-mowers and bicycles every so often. As politicians it is our job to reform law that is outdated and needs to be amended and modernised. As my colleague, Senator Cummins, has said, the law in this area dates back to 1962. In his speech the Minister identified huge changes that are required within the Coroners Act 1962 to modernise it. I heard the Minister say in the other House that he hopes the heads of the Bill will go to Cabinet even before Christmas so that it can be published on his website early in the new year.
In regard to this case concerning Pierce Nowlan, the net issue highlighted by the coroner related to the number of medical witnesses that could be called to the inquest. This new change in the law will get rid of the existing bar on more than two medical witnesses. That is an important step forward and as Senator Jim Walsh has said there is also a much more modern up-dating of the law in terms of increasing penalties for those jurors and witnesses who refuse to co-operate or do not attend. On the issue of jurors for an inquest, does the existing age ban of 70 that applies in all other courts apply? As the Minister is aware a juror in the Irish criminal——
That is a good thing. I have raised this point previously. It is anachronistic and wrong that just because a person is 70 years of age he or she cannot serve on a jury. We need people of all ages, all experiences, all walks of life to take part in our jury system. The whole kernel of the criminal justice system is based on the notion that one is judged by one's peers and one's peers determine a result to courts. The age limit of 70 that exists in ordinary criminal cases should be amended. I am sure that in his reply the Minister will say it will be amended. I am pleased to hear it does not apply in this case. It is crazy that people who may have more free time than others would be debarred from taking party in a jury. I am glad it does not apply in this case because we need the widest possible group of people to be available.
What I read about this case, and the other cases that have been mentioned, and specifically the lack of modernisation in the law concerning coroners and inquests, is that for far too long we have not taken this matter seriously enough. I welcome the fact that the Minister will bring forward the heads of a Bill to be debated soon as part of an ongoing consultation process. I assure him that if he brings forward a modernised Bill we will do our best on this side to bring it through the House swiftly when it comes before us.
I reiterate my congratulations to the Labour Party, and particularly to Deputy Rabbitte, who single-handedly managed to bring the Bill to where it is today with Government support. It is a good day's work and those who are behind the campaign, specifically a family from my part of Dublin South-West, deserve all our credit for their public spiritedness and the way in which they have managed to change the law as a result of a tragedy that affected a member of their family.
I am sure the Minister wants to get this Bill through before he even thinks about that.
The Government, and especially the Minister, should be congratulated for facilitating this Bill and its swift passage through both Houses. The Minister could have decided to draft a Bill along the lines of the one before us but he rightly recognised that such legislation may not have endured the charge that it did not address the necessary reform. Alternatively, he could have presented a full Bill of the type currently being finalised but the likelihood of it being enacted before the taking of the highlighted case was very remote. The Government and all those associated must be congratulated for this initiative.
As has been stated, the Government's legislative programme, announced at the beginning of the session, contained a commitment to replace the Coroners Act 1962 with a modern code of law which would establish a coroners service and transform the organisation. The Minister has confirmed that he intends to publish the heads of that Bill, which are quite comprehensive, and the consultation process will then take place. I welcome that and believe it is the necessary and correct way to proceed.
Notwithstanding all of that, the Bill before us focuses on two specific deficiencies, namely, the restriction on the number of medical witnesses and the outdated sanctions for the non-attendance of a witness or juror. In a limited number of cases, these deficiencies have combined to hamper inquests. The Minister has met the Nowlan family and accepts that the current law could have created an injustice had it not been remedied. That is commendable and is the right way to proceed. Certain cases have helped to highlight the inadequacies of the current law and have proved the need for change. When a Government responds positively and political parties conspire to bring about that change, it is a good day for democracy.
We recently debated the Statute Law Revision (Pre-1922) Bill in this House, which promotes the revision of statute law by repealing Acts passed before December 1922 that have ceased to be enforced or become unnecessary. In this case, the Coroners (Amendment) Bill seeks to abolish the outdated restriction that a coroner can only call two medical witnesses to give evidence at an inquest. This restriction could not be left in place because it had a detrimental impact on the conduct of inquests and I join with those, including many coroners, who have called for its removal.
I join with previous speakers in congratulating the Nowlan family, who have highlighted their case. They need to be supported and commended for their bravery and civic spirit, as mentioned by Senator Brian Hayes. The Labour Party and Deputy Rabbitte, through Senator Tuffy, are to be congratulated for bringing the Bill to this stage, as are others who have been associated with highlighting the Nowlan case, notably Deputy O'Connor and Senator Brian Hayes. The latter has spoken on this issue a number of times and has spoken to me about it in an effort to support the Minister in bringing this legislation through speedily. The Minister and the Tánaiste, who also met the family, have shown an enormous interest in this case. The legislation will enable members of the Nowlan family to go to the coroner's court early next year and get the answers they seek. In that context, it is quite unusual that legislation enacted by us can have such a real impact in such a short space of time.
I welcome the Minister to the House and welcome his acceptance of this Bill, brought forward by Deputy Rabbitte. It is very important legislation and I am glad the Minister did not wait until the bringing forward of the major Bill to which he referred. In that context, I hope the Leader will make sure that he brings that Bill to this House so we can deal comprehensively with it. It will be very satisfying legislation with which to deal.
It is extraordinary that it was 43 years before any attempt was made to change the provision regarding the number of medical witnesses. I assure the Minister that this change is welcomed by the coroners and the medical profession, with whom I have been in contact since this Bill came before the Dáil. Medicine has changed enormously since 1962 and no one person can claim to be an expert on all of the medical facts that may come before an inquest. The very tragic case which was the catalyst for this legislation shows that clearly.
I would like to express my sympathy to the Nowlan family but also point out that something good has come out of the death of their young son. In this sad case, the child was a haemophiliac so not only would the doctor who was involved in the procedure which went wrong want to speak, but so too would those who had been treating the child up to that point and those who treated him after he became ill. A considerable number of people would want to give their facts to the inquest, facts which would be useful.
One coroner told me that he recently spent seven hours going through medical evidence from one medical witness. He said it was hopeless because he was asking the witness about his knowledge on one area, then another and so on. Now coroners will be in a position to call in the experts in specific areas, which will be very worthwhile. After all, what we want to come out are the facts of what actually happened, not people's opinions.
The Minister has removed the compellability section from the Bill. It is very much to be welcomed that the fines for non-attendance are much heavier, because as the Minister said, the previous fines would not even have covered a taxi fare to the inquest. There is now the threat of a substantial fine of €3,000, six months in jail, or both. If a person refuses to attend an inquest, could the Attorney General take a case on behalf of the coroner? Would that be a possibility? One frequently reads of cases in the newspapers where people refuse to attend inquests, even though it is perfectly obvious that their attendance is of great importance. That is dreadful.
I am always conscious of the fact that the legal profession is inclined to give the medical profession medical advice, so as a medical person I try to refrain from giving the legal profession legal advice. However, the Minister might look at this issue to determine if there is any way the Attorney General could take a case against people who do not co-operate. I know attempts have been made regarding compellability in the past and none has succeeded to date, but it is an important area.
I look forward to seeing the heads of the aforementioned Bill before Easter 2006. I always think it is advisable to say to which Easter or which Christmas one is referring. I hope we will have the substantive Bill in this House very shortly thereafter.
I welcome the Minister to the House and while it is true contrary views were expressed about him here, it was nothing like in the other House.
I welcome the Bill but, of course, for the parents and family, nothing will bring back baby Pierce or remove their great sadness. I was thinking, as others were speaking, about how their hearts must have been sorely tried but they did not sit back. They could have been overwhelmed by their sadness and not seen a road ahead that they could take. It is a principle of democracy that if improvements can be made through the enactment of legislation in a proper way to remedy a deficient situation, it should be done. That is the way the Nowlan family approached this issue and Deputy Rabbitte is to be greatly admired for his involvement. He told me two weeks ago that this Bill would be coming to the Seanad and I told him that no matter when that was, we would fit it into the legislative agenda. I am glad that we did so and that Senator Tuffy is here, on behalf of her party, to deal with the Bill. It reflects well on the Dáil and the Seanad because we are often criticised for "Tom and Jerry" politics. In this instance, a deficiency was noted and somebody, namely, Deputy Rabbitte, had the wit to see that it could be remedied and took action. He met the Minister and the Government and they chose to prepare legislation rather than make placards, go on marches and complain. They found a way to deal with the problem by amending part of an old Act so that differing facets of medical opinion could be given in the course of the inquest into the death of this child.
It will alleviate many burdens on the family and allow them a serenity they would not otherwise have enjoyed. It is a triumph for democracy that various strands of political opinion were able to confront and deal successfully with a heart-rending situation. Many Ministers attempting to perform an act of legislative mercy have been told by officials that they could not do so because it would require major legislation, which the Bill represents. I was never Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform but I often wanted to do something and was told that it was impossible. As often as not, however, I had my way.
Clearly, kindred spirits met in an intellectual and sympathetic way to produce this Bill. I commend the Minister and hope the Christmas of the Nowlan family will be eased in the knowledge that they have contributed, in a meaningful and democratic way, to a change in the law that will have an effect on other inquests until the main Bill is finally enacted. I ask the Minister to introduce that Bill in this House where Senator Henry, as is always the case, and others such as Senator Jim Walsh will subject it to a forensic examination. This is a legislative Chamber and if we can do good, we will.
I thank everybody for their kind comments about the Labour Party and its leader Deputy Rabbitte. In addition to raising the issue with the Minister and the Leader of the House, Deputy Rabbitte also impressed on me and colleagues in the Seanad the importance of the legislation and the need for it to have speedy passage through the House. Deputy Rabbitte clearly felt strongly that there was an anomaly that caused hardship and that could and must be addressed. Accordingly, he persuaded all sides of the House and we are now in a position to enact the necessary legislation into law.
A few people made the important point that this legislation will assist many other cases, to a number of which the Minister referred. It is a major problem and needs to be addressed in a general sense, not just with particular reference to the Nowlan family. I support the comments of Senator Brian Hayes and others on the courage of Pierce's parents and family in raising this issue.
The comprehensive legislation will be welcome but if the Minister introduced it early next year, for example, at Easter, it would involve substantial consultation and scrutiny in joint and select committees and would have amendments proposed to it. It would be a substantial item of legislation containing many sections and would, therefore, be impossible to enact for a further year. That is why it is so important to bring it in now. I thank the Minister and his staff for taking that fact on board and I thank other Members of the House, including those on the Government benches, for their support.