Seanad debates

Thursday, 4 October 2007

Question proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time".

12:00 pm

Photo of Brian Lenihan JnrBrian Lenihan Jnr (Minister, Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform; Dublin West, Fianna Fail)
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I am pleased to have this opportunity to introduce the Coroners Bill 2007 and to outline its main provisions. The Bill provides for a fundamental change and improvement to the coronial death investigation process in Ireland. The comprehensive reform measures proposed will transform the existing legislation — the Coroners Act 1962 — and structures which govern the work of the coroner and provide for the establishment of a new coroner service. These two elements are interdependent and together are critical to the achievement of the successful outcome of the planned reform of this vital public service.

The Bill incorporates many of the recommendations made by the working group on the review of the coroner service in 2000 and the coroners rules committee in 2003. The Bill also has regard to recent developments in terms of jurisprudence and to ongoing reform of coroner services in other common law jurisdictions such as New Zealand, Australia and the United Kingdom.

The death of a loved one — whatever the circumstances — is, self-evidently, an event of major trauma. However, where the circumstances of a death require further investigation, the coroner plays a vital role in providing explanation and, hopefully, some comfort through his or her inquiries to the families and friends of the deceased person at a very difficult time. Coroners are required to achieve that delicate balance between performing their statutory function in ascertaining the cause of death while also remaining sensitive to the grief of the family and close friends of the deceased person.

The coroner service is one of the oldest public offices of state. The origins of this office can be traced back almost a millennium to the 12th century. Historically, the main duty of the coroner was to protect the interests of the Crown in criminal cases hence the name coroner was given to the position. Over the years, many and varying duties have been imposed on coroners and these have been refined in modern times into the critical role of inquiry into deaths.

While the role of coroner has been always connected to unexplained deaths, the complexity and importance of the modern coroner bears little resemblance to his or her historical predecessor. Today's coroner has a very wide range of duties involving investigatory, administrative, judicial, preventative and educational functions. The coroner operates as an independent judicial officer required to establish the "who, when, where and how" of an unexplained death.

It is important to emphasise that the coroner is not permitted to consider or pronounce on civil or criminal responsibility in respect of a death. The role of the coroner is, to the best of his or her ability and based on the evidence available, to establish the facts. The new coroner legislation must also meet the requirements of the European Convention on Human Rights. The European Court of Human Rights has, through several judgments, validated the important and primary role of the coroner's inquest in fulfilling this State's obligations under the convention to investigate any death involving public authorities or institutions. The court has also interpreted Article 2 of the convention as providing for a more extensive investigation of the circumstances of death and has indicated that an extension of the scope of the inquest is effectively required to meet the obligations of the convention. I note that in its report on the Bill, the Irish Human Rights Commission welcomed the approach adopted as meeting our obligations under Article 2.

The current legislation dates back to 1962. However, in substance, the law and structures have changed little since the middle of the 19th century. If a coroner from that era was to return today, he would recognise without great difficulty the current situation. I do not exaggerate when I say that this reform is not of an incremental nature but rather involves a jump of about 150 years. The law in this area is in need of considerable updating to ensure Irish coroners are equipped to conduct the best possible death investigation and are provided with the necessary administrative and technical supports to carry out their functions.

The Bill represents the effective culmination of a significant period of reflection and consideration on this matter. In 1998, the then Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy John O'Donoghue, began the reform process when he established an expert working group to review all aspects of the coroner service. The review group comprised representatives from my Department, the Garda Síochána, the Coroners Society of Ireland, other Departments and offices, representatives from the health authorities, the medical and legal professions and other stakeholders.

The group conducted the first far reaching review of all aspects of the coroner service in Ireland. It examined equivalent services in appropriate comparable jurisdictions. Following a broad consultation with interested parties, it identified issues which needed to be addressed to ensure the coroner service provides the best response to present and future requirements. The group was greatly assisted in its task by the submissions it received from all stakeholders and particularly so from the submissions made by families who told of their experiences with the coroner service.

The report of the working group, entitled "Review of the Coroner Service", was published in December 2000. It contained 110 recommendations covering a wide range of issues. The work of the group was complemented by the subsequent report of the coroners rules committee, which was published in November 2003. The recommendations of the review group and the coroners rules committee have formed the basis for the formulation of this Bill.

There has been only one change to the law since the Coroners Act of 1962. Some Senators may recall that the Government supported a Private Members' Coroners (Amendment) Bill, which was enacted in December 2005, as an urgent interim measure. It abolished the restriction on the number of medical witnesses at an inquest and increased sanctions for reluctant or non-cooperative jurors and witnesses. The provisions of the 2005 Act are subsumed into this Bill in sections 63 and 64.

The Bill was introduced earlier this year by my predecessor, Michael McDowell. It represented the culmination of these extensive consultations with relevant Departments, the Office of the Attorney General, statutory bodies, the Coroners Society of Ireland and other stakeholders.

The Bill has two critical elements. These are the widening of scope of the inquest and the extension of the remit of the coroner and the development of optimum structures and administration for a modern coroner service. The Bill provides a statutory framework extending the scope of an inquest, from investigating the proximate medical cause of death, to establishing in what circumstances the deceased met his or her death. The current law in the 1962 Act, and as interpreted by the courts, provides for a restrictive approach as to the examination at inquest of how a person died being limited to the proximate medical cause of death.

The coroners review group recommended the extension of the remit of the coronial investigation to encompass the wider circumstances surrounding a death. It recommended it be expressed in positive terms in any new legislation. In addition to its recommendation, the developing jurisprudence of the European Court of Human Rights necessitated an address to this extension of remit.

A death under investigation by the coroner involves the continuation of an already traumatic and stressful period for any family and friends of the deceased. However, the coroner service, as the review group noted in its report, is "a service for the living" which in recognising the core value of each human life seeks to provide an explanation for a sudden or unnatural death. In that regard, I highlight the important provision in section 36 which sets out for the first time in statute the rights of a family to the fullest possible information as to a coroner's investigations. This critical and necessary feature will be certainly welcomed by families concerned. The provision also helps to better fulfil our obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights.

The Bill sets out explicitly new provisions in the duty of the coroner to investigate a reportable death and the powers of the coroner in conducting the investigation into a death. It provides the coroner with the necessary supports in law to carry out his or her functions properly. Not all death investigations by a coroner necessarily lead to the holding of a formal inquest. The cause of death may be readily discernible without the need for an inquest.

Where an inquest is required, the Bill sets out the procedures for the conduct of an inquest by the coroner. In the case of situations where there is a mandatory requirement to hold an inquest, the Bill provides for more explicit provisions to deal with those situations. These include deaths in custody situations or of children in care where the State or its institutions have an involvement.

These new provisions on the investigation by the coroner and on the inquest, taken together, are intended to ensure the primacy of the role of the coroner. The Bill, however, also seeks to respect the roles and responsibilities of other statutory bodies and agencies involved in specific types of death investigation, for example, when a workplace or travel-related incident is involved or where the State or its agents may be involved. There is a delicate balance to be maintained in this regard. It is not my intention to create any unnecessary tension or diversion of investigative resources. We must be mindful to retain an overall coherence of approach.

To that end, section 90 makes provision for necessary protocols of co-operation and information sharing between the coroner service and organisations such as the Garda Síochána, the Garda Ombudsman Commission and statutory bodies with responsibilities under other enactments to investigate accidents, incidents or diseases resulting in death.

I expect this co-operative approach, which respects the prerogatives of the bodies concerned, while retaining the central role of the coroner to properly conduct his or her inquest, will ensure the best and most coherent approach to complex death investigations, without recourse to any further legislative intervention.

The other main objective of the Bill is to establish a new full-time coroner service. The review group was concerned about the need to ensure a high quality coroner service with proper resources and supports available to it. It recommended an evolution to a regionalised structure where there would be fewer than the current historical provision of 48 coronial districts.

The approach proposed in the Bill provides for the transformation of the existing part-time coroner service, administered by individual coroners in conjunction with local authorities, into a co-ordinated national service under the aegis of the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform. It is proposed the new coroner service will comprise a chief coroner, deputy coroner, a certain number of full-time coroners and a fewer number of part-time assistant coroners. The service will be organised on a regional basis with the number and extent of the regions to be prescribed by the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, taking into account certain determining factors for an optimal service.

Provision has been also made for the employment of coroners' officers to assist the coroner in carrying out his or her duties under the Bill. A director of the coroner service will be appointed and will be responsible for its day-to-day administration.

The transition from the existing somewhat fragmented service into the new co-ordinated and national service will require considerable planning and preparation. The Government has approved the establishment of the coroner service implementation office which will commence the necessary arrangements for the new service. In line with Government policy on decentralisation, it will be based in Navan, County Meath, and will be reconstituted as the headquarters of the coroner service upon establishment.

Section 8, provides for the establishment of a coroner service. On the establishment of the service, full responsibility for coroners, including financial responsibility, will rest with the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform and the involvement of local authorities will cease. Section 11, provides for a director of the service who will administer the service and be responsible for the management and general control of the administration of the coroners service. No less than two coroners, on a full-time basis, and no less than one assistant coroner, on a part-time basis, will operate in each dedicated coroner region, as prescribed under section 12.

A chief coroner will, under section 13, give professional leadership and direction to the coroner service. Deaths as specified in sections 25 and 26 and the Third Schedule must be reported to a coroner and the persons required to report the death are also specified. The inquisitorial nature of the coroner's investigation, his or her independence in performing functions under this Act and the requirement to have regard to the European Convention on Human Rights are explicitly mentioned in section 27.

The duty of the coroner to investigate a death is set out in section 28. Section 31 sets out the procedures for coroners to investigate certain deaths which may occur outside the State. The coroner, under sections 34 and 35, may issue a certificate of fact of death which will authorise disposal of the body and act as proof of the death in regard to any claim for entitlement, for example certain types of State payments. This new certificate of fact of death is not to be confused with the death certificate, issued ultimately by the Registrar of Deaths, but an interim solution designed to meet the needs of families affected. This will be welcomed by Members because of the practical problems many have encountered with this matter.

For the first time in legislation, the Bill sets out in section 36, the duty of the coroner to provide full and clear information concerning all stages of the death investigation process to the family of the deceased person. Coroners have powers, under sections 33, 37 and 38, of custody and removal of a body, and if necessary for their investigations, of entry and inspection of premises. Where the premises are a private dwelling, the authority of a District Court judge will be required. Coroners may seek, under section 41, directions of the High Court on a point of law. There are detailed provisions in sections 43 to 46, inclusive, on the circumstances where the coroner is required to hold an inquest, on the coroner's general power to hold an inquest and the express purpose of the inquest.

Section 46 provides for widening the scope of the inquest from investigating the proximate medical cause of death to establishing, in so far as practicable, in what circumstances the deceased met his or her death. This is the extension of the remit of the coroner. Detailed provision is made in sections 47 to 53, inclusive, as to the proper and efficient conduct of inquests and the procedures to be followed with a view to establishing best practice, efficiency and transparency in the matter.

Section 54 provides for a new feature, the power for the inquest to make recommendations designed to prevent future similar deaths and other hazards to life and to bring these to the attention of appropriate persons. Where a recommendation is addressed to a Department, a local authority or a statutory body, there is a formal requirement on them that a written response be made to the coroner no later than six months from the date of receipt of the recommendation, indicating the measures, if any, taken on foot of the recommendation.

Where criminal proceedings are being considered or are under way or certain other investigations are being carried out by the Garda Síochána and other mentioned public or statutory authorities, the coroner must under sections 57 to 59, inclusive, adjourn the inquest. There are provisions in sections 63 to 73, inclusive, relating to witnesses and the involvement and functions of juries at inquests. Juries will continue to be required in certain defined circumstances.

There are provisions in sections 74 to 77, inclusive, relating to the conduct of post mortem examinations and other special examinations on behalf of the coroner. These are designed to inform and reassure the families of the deceased regarding the procedures involved. There are also provisions relating to the approval and conduct of exhumation which may be required for a coroner's investigation.

There is provision in sections 80 to 82, inclusive, for a range of offences concerning failure to co-operate with an inquest or with a coroner, including offences by bodies corporate. On summary conviction of offences, persons may face fines of up to €3,000 and up to 12 months' imprisonment or both. Larger fines are provided for in respect of conviction on indictment.

The Bill provides in section 83 that the coroner service will publish an annual report on its activities. Of particular importance is that the Bill provides in section 86 that the Legal Aid Board may arrange for the granting of legal aid in proceedings before a coroner where a person has died in, or resulting from being in, State custody or in certain institutional care situations. The effect of judgments of the European Court of Human Rights — confirmed by the Irish courts — is that there must be provision for legal aid in cases where there is involvement of the State in the circumstances of the death.

Section 90 provides for the necessary co-operation and information-sharing arrangements to be developed between the coroner service and the Garda Síochána, the Garda Ombudsman Commission and appropriate statutory bodies with responsibility for the investigation of accidents, incidents or diseases resulting in death. These latter include primarily the Health and Safety Authority, the Road Safety Authority, the Railway Safety Commission and the Air Accident Investigation Unit.

There are four Schedules to the Bill. In particular, Schedule 3 sets out the categories of deaths to be reportable to a coroner and Schedule 4 relates to conditions of jury service at an inquest.

Coroners in Ireland have done an excellent job over the years in serving their communities and have gained the respect of the public. The debate today affords me the opportunity to express on behalf of the Government our appreciation for their efforts. I am sure Senators will want to join me in expressing such appreciation. This new legislation will reinforce the role of the coroner at the centre of the death investigation process. The new system proposed in the Bill, incorporating legislative and structural and administrative reform, will provide a better service to the families of deceased persons and to society at large in explaining deaths and in alerting us to public safety and health issues.

This reform, when fully implemented, will mean an improved service, greater consistency of approach to death investigations and better and more timely information to families involved in the process. I look forward, with the support of the House, to the passage of the Bill and implementation of the associated organisational and structural reform. I commend the Bill to the House.

Photo of Eugene ReganEugene Regan (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister to the House. As the Fine Gael spokesman on justice, I am delighted to address this Bill.

I welcome the fact that the Minister has listed this legislation among one of his priorities. It was listed in the Government's legislative programme for 2003-04 and then it was to be available in 2005. The report of the working group on the review of the coroner service was produced in 2000, so this is really an important Bill which should have been available quite some time ago. I therefore welcome the fact that the present Minister is moving on this issue with despatch.

We welcome the Bill. It puts a professional and transparent structure on this whole service. In the context of inquests that arise, it involves issues in the most varied of circumstances which cause extraordinary distress to families of the deceased. The provisions in the Bill that deal expressly with notices to families of inquests and the involvement of families and interested persons in the process is to be welcomed. It is evident that the legislative basis of inquests had to be adjusted and updated in the light of European Court of Human Rights jurisprudence, and this is reflected in the Bill.

The widening of the scope of the inquest is a fundamental change and one we also support. Then there is the provision for legal aid in certain circumstances, again as required by the European Court of Human Rights. There is also the issue of inquests into deaths that occur outside the State. There have been cases where that has been an issue and it is good that this is reflected in the Bill.

Overall, it is an effort to adopt a professional approach to providing this service. Establishing a full-time service is the way to go and while we will deal with specific amendments on Committee Stage, the real issue is whether the resources will be put in place to implement the Bill's provisions, especially in terms of the transition to a full-time coroner service, the prompt conduct of examinations and tests and the reporting on tests to the interested parties. Perhaps the Minister will comment on that. I am also concerned that there should be a smooth transition from existing arrangements to the full-time service and that the Coroners Society of Ireland should facilitate that transition.

The Minister has sought the co-operation of all the Members and parties in this House. He will have the co-operation of Fine Gael in progressing the Bill. It is important legislation and we will give him our full co-operation in that process.

Photo of Jim WalshJim Walsh (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the Minister to the House, and I welcome this legislation. The issue has been raised previously by the Joint Committee on Justice, Equality, Defence and Women's Rights in reports on some of the investigations and inquiries held into people killed arising from British collusion in this jurisdiction during the Troubles of the past 30 years.

It is an initiative that has been sought by the Coroners Society of Ireland, the Coroners Review Group and the Coroners Rules Committee in 2003. It is to equip coroners to conduct the best possible investigations into death. Perhaps as we explore the Bill we can bear this in mind and see whether it achieves that.

There are two broad parameters to the legislation. One is to widen the scope of the inquest and the remit of the coroner from investigating the proximate cause of death to establishing the circumstances. Then there is the development of the structures and administration within the coroner service. In that regard, it is important we seek to ensure there is no possibility of any intrusion into the independence of coroners' investigations and how they make their decisions.

It will be a new full-time coroner service, co-ordinated at national level under the aegis of the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform. As the Minister said, it is intended that it will be done regionally. I note Senator Regan has welcomed the fact that it is to be a full-time service and I have no doubt there is a need for a move in that direction. However, will all coroners need to be full-time? We have a system which, despite its flaws and shortcomings, operates with reasonable success on a part-time basis. There is also the question of expertise which may be lost because we are moving from a part-time to a full-time service. This is something that might, perhaps, be examined.

There is a statutory entitlement in the Bill for a coroner to receive assistance from the Garda Síochána. A garda can carry out a direction of the coroner only if the Commissioner accepts it is not in conflict with any given by the Commissioner. To some extent, that perhaps impinges on the independence of the coroner. Perhaps there will be cases in which it will be necessary to address that. Section 21(5) states: "A member of the Garda Síochána shall not act as a coroner's officer in any investigation by a coroner into a death of a person in or immediately after being in Garda custody". I see reasons for that but how does the coroner fill that void?

I refer to the qualifications. To become a chief coroner, an assistant coroner or a coroner, one must have ten years' experience either as a barrister or a practising solicitor or be a registered medical practitioner. What is the practice internationally in that regard? To the best of my knowledge, this provision would not debar any existing barristers. However, that a coroner may come from one of two professions indicates there will be a deficit in the expertise of a coroner in one of the disciplines. I accept that person can fill that deficit through other means. The corollary is that a person who has a deficit in both disciplines could, if he or she had the aptitude and ability, do the job effectively by filling both of those deficits. A person who is a medical practitioner would obviously have a greater understanding of the results of a post mortem. That a coroner can come from one of two professions shows that if he or she does not have the expertise, compensatory mechanisms can be put in place.

To some extent, we are talking about two very sheltered professions which have not really been tackled from a competition point of view and I suppose I come with that baggage to this debate. We have been very remiss in not addressing that issue. I compliment the Minister for Health and Children for her courage in taking on vested interests in the health service. I have not seen the same enthusiasm for taking on the vested interests in the legal profession. The country could benefit from doing that.

Photo of Eugene ReganEugene Regan (Fine Gael)
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The new Minister will do that.

Photo of Jim WalshJim Walsh (Fianna Fail)
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Under Part 3, the Minister may make regulations providing for coroners' rules. It struck me that should be mandatory rather than discretionary and, presumably, it will happen. Part 4 deals with reporting of deaths to the coroner and the various categories of deaths. I see the logic behind that in regard to suicide, suspected suicide and suspected assisted suicide. However, where death occurs from natural causes, which are obvious to everybody, there is no need for an inquest. Why is there such a requirement where it is patently obvious a suicide has occurred? I am prompting a little discussion on that because it is often a very sensitive issue for families. What is the logic behind that requirement?

In regard to unnatural stillbirths and intra-uterine deaths, I notice there is no reference to an aborted foetus, for example. The Constitution provides for the equal right to life. Should that matter be addressed in the Bill? It is an issue of which politicians tend to steer clear because it is controversial and fraught with many legal complications and issues.

I fully understand why if a person is under Garda Síochána, military or prison custody at the time of death or immediately before his or her death, it must be reported. That leads me to an issue which arose last week which is not entirely related but, nonetheless, connected where there was an intervention by the Garda Ombudsman into an inquest. Such interventions should be addressed given that the function of the Garda Ombudsman is now being rolled out. We must have regard for people who might be under the microscope as the Garda was in this case. Where a complaint is made, there should be some discretion. There should also be some time lines in respect of an intervention. I appreciate that in this case the Garda Ombudsman is a new functionary within the system. No time lines are mentioned in the Bill in regard to the holding of inquests.

For time to time, there have been complaints by families about delays encountered in establishing inquests. At a time of great trauma for families, that seems unfair and unjust. Perhaps that will be improved now that we are moving to a full-time situation but there should be an obligation to operate within certain time lines. I appreciate the difficulty in that the complexity of an investigation will have a bearing on when an inquest is held. However, the Bill should provide that inquests are held as soon as possible. That would conform with the broad thrust of the European Convention on Human Rights to which the Minister referred.

Part 7 relates to the conduct of the inquest and the mandatory notice of 14 days. Section 47 states: "A coroner shall, whether by post or such other means as he or she considers suitable, arrange for the notification of any or all of the following persons". Does that mean there is an obligation to inform the family? Another section provides that where an investigation is undertaken, there are mandatory obligations on the coroner. However, section 47 states a coroner is required to notify "any or all of the following persons". If he or she notifies one or two of the three mentioned, that meets the requirement.

In one of the inquiries held by an Oireachtas sub-committee — I am not sure if it was the inquiry into the murder of Seamus Ludlow — there were strong complaints by the family in regard to the conduct of the inquest. The family was only notified on the morning of the inquest that it was taking place. We were all ad idem that should not be the case. I presume it has been corrected in the Bill but if it has not been, perhaps the Minister might respond.

I referred to the adjournment of cases. A broad spectrum of bodies can seek an adjournment. People representing the Coroners Society of Ireland have expressed some concerns in this regard. The spectrum is much broader than heretofore. This should be considered because intervention such as that of last week should not be used as a last-minute response to a complaint.

One point made by the Coroners' Society of Ireland concerns the powers of the chief coroner. The society is concerned about the extent to which these might impinge on the independence of individual coroners. It is imperative that whatever procedures are in place do not allow this to happen. Ultimately, this is under the control of the Department. Any development that impinges on the control of a coroner would be unwelcome and any mushrooming of agencies that could impede the speed of coroners' inquests should be avoided.

A point was made on the over-centralisation of death investigations and the Coroners' Society of Ireland seems to be under the impression that the service would be centralised in Navan. The office will be in Navan but it would be a little incongruous if all death investigations were conducted therefrom. Local investigations could be more expeditious and effective.

I am aware this Bill was published last April and that, as a consequence of the election, there has not been much time for full consultation. The Bill has not been discussed by the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Justice, Equality, Defence and Women's Rights. There should be an opportunity for committees and the Coroners' Society of Ireland to engage with the Minister to ensure the changes he rightly says are long overdue are made in a cohesive way that ensures significant improvement to existing services.

Photo of Rónán MullenRónán Mullen (Independent)
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I propose to share my time with Senators Shane Ross and Joe O'Toole.

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Fine Gael)
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Is that agreed? Agreed.

Photo of Rónán MullenRónán Mullen (Independent)
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Ba bhreá liom fáilte a chur roimh an Aire agus tréaslú leis as an mBille tábhachtach seo. Tá sé thar am go mbeadh a leithéid de reachtaíocht os ár gcomhair. This is a very important Bill and the Minister is to be commended on introducing it. It proposes to replace legislation that has been in place for 45 years. The Coroners Act 1962 came into effect when Charles J. Haughey was Minister for Justice. Despite the one amendment alluded to by the Minister for Justice Equality and Law Reform, Deputy Brian Lenihan, there has been no other significant legislative reform. I note what the Minister said on the review sponsored by his Department. The review group reported in 2000 and made a number of recommendations, and it has been a long journey to this point. The original Act had 59 sections while the current substantial Bill has 92. The proposed reform of the coronial system is very welcome and long overdue.

It is interesting to reflect on why a new arrangement is proposed. For a significant number of people, the only forum in which the circumstances of a death can be investigated is through a coroner's inquiry. Most cases do not result in civil or criminal proceedings and it is therefore important to reflect on the public importance of the coroner's role.

As the Minister stated, to comply with the requirements of Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights, there must be provision for an extensive inquiry system like that proposed. It is a significant advance on what was in place previously and its importance might be recognised in light of our Constitution's guarantee to vindicate the right to life of the person.

I have but a few observations and concerns regarding the Bill. Sections 13, 15 and 17 provide that the chief coroner, deputy chief coroner and coroners would be appointed by the Executive, by warrant of the Government. It is to be noted that heretofore coroners were appointed by local authorities. There were good historical reasons for doing so. If a coroner was to rack up charges on ratepayers, he or she had to be answerable locally.

One must ask whether the new provision regarding the appointment of coroners by the Executive will affect compliance with our obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights. Is there sufficient arm's length to allow full compliance with the convention given that the Government will appoint coroners and that its interests might be involved? It is probably not a problem bearing in mind that judges are Government appointees. Judges, too, must review Executive actions from time to time. Nonetheless, one must ask why there is a departure from the previous arrangement.

It is clear that the Bill streamlines the Coroners Service. At present, there are part-time coroners who are doctors, solicitors or barristers. Under the new legislation, full-time coroners will be appointed for different regions. It also provides that there will be a threshold requirement concerning the duration of previous practice in one's profession. Section 23 stipulates that, once appointed as chief coroner, deputy chief coroner or coroner, one cannot continue to practise as a solicitor or barrister. These provisions do not apply to doctors. Is it contemplated that medical practitioners, who are also entitled to be appointed to these positions, will be required to give up their medical careers? Will the Minister enlighten us as to why there is a distinction between members of the legal profession and those of the medical profession? Is it contemplated that it would be impossible to get doctors to take on the job if they were required to give up their existing medical practices?

Section 24 provides for coroners' rules in a very welcome way. We had no previous rules of court and Appendix J of the Review of the Coroner Service sets out minimum requirements in this area. No doubt these or similar rules will commend themselves to the Minister, who will have the power to make rules.

Section 27(3) makes specific reference to the European Convention on Human Rights and the fact that the coroner shall have regard to the provisions thereof. The urging of coroners to have regard to these rights is very welcome, particularly in light of our constitutional context.

Let me address some specific matters of concern. Section 31 deals with deaths outside the State. I am aware that when British military personnel are killed on active service abroad, the coroner in the place in which the deceased would normally have resided in Britain may inquire into the circumstances of the death. In the United Kingdom there have been a number of high-profile cases involving friendly fire.

It could never be desirable that parents or family members would find themselves up against a wall of silence where a death abroad is concerned. One cannot obtain the findings of an Army inquiry when somebody dies in the field and therefore the only way in which a family might get answers is by way of a coroner's investigation.

The provisions of section 31 appear to be conjunctive and I wonder whether they are not supposed to be disjunctive. There is a strong case to be made for a domestic coroner to be empowered to inquire into the death of a member of the Defence Forces or a garda overseas. Are all the provisions in the various subsections of section 31 supposed to apply before such an investigation can be opened or are they meant to be disjunctive? The coroner ought to be empowered, as of right, to open an inquiry on the application of an interested party.

Section 34 provides for the giving of a certificate of the fact of death, reflecting the de facto practice that is currently done on an informal basis. I wonder if such a certificate is now necessary or sufficient to get a State benefit or to make a claim under an insurance policy. For that reason, I welcome the new provision, which seeks to reflect the de facto practice, especially as delays are often encountered in the system when people try to secure rights and benefits. I also welcome section 41, which provides for a consultative case to be stated by the coroner for the opinion of the High Court.

The next main issue I would like to flag concerns post mortems, which are dealt with in Part 10. Section 74 provides that a coroner may ask a medical practitioner to conduct an examination or post mortem. I am aware of a coroner in the north east who was unable to secure the services of a pathologist locally, which gave rise to particular problems and unnecessary delays in completing necessary post mortem examinations. It resulted in bodies being moved around the State to different hospitals to conduct post mortems, thereby causing unnecessary distress and grief to family members. This proposed legislation seems to contemplate that this unfortunate set of circumstances will be perpetuated. A coroner should be entitled to invoke the assistance of local publicly-funded pathology services on a statutory basis. If industrial relations issues need to be addressed, the Minister should address them with some urgency. This problem was flagged seven years ago in the report of the working group. Section 74(1) should state that the coroner "shall direct" rather than "may request".

Part 10 also provides that a coroner is not required to investigate any death that occurred more than 70 years ago — prior to 1937. If the chosen year was 1932, when Fianna Fáil came into government, cynics might question the creation of this exclusion zone. Why has such a specific cut-off point been chosen?

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Fine Gael)
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I understand that Senator Mullen is sharing time.

Photo of Rónán MullenRónán Mullen (Independent)
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I apologise to Senator Ross for not giving way. The other Senator with whom I had intended to share time is absent from the Chamber. I am concerned that the provisions for granting legal aid are too uncertain. There appears to be too much vagueness about the circumstances in which legal aid might be granted. It should be made clear that legal aid is available on a means-tested basis, rather than being decided on by the coroner in a vague manner that might give rise to inequality. I apologise again to my colleagues with whom I am sharing time. I commend the Bill, with the reservations I have mentioned.

Photo of Shane RossShane Ross (Independent)
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I broadly welcome the thrust and idea of this reforming Bill. I understand the motivation for it. I do not doubt that the attempt being made to modernise the coroners office is well founded and necessary. I am sure the principles which underpin this legislation will be the subject of all-party agreement.

The response this Bill has received from certain vested interests has not been completely unanimous and uncritical, however, in contrast to the response that was given to the review group's report in 2000. I wonder whether the coroners, who are somewhat involved in this matter and were represented on the review group, were properly consulted before the Bill was drafted. There is some discontent among the coroners about what is happening in this Bill. It is regrettable that the last Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform was unable to meet the coroners before this legislation was drafted. It would have been appropriate if he had done so because it would have made the Bill a little less contentious. On foot of that difficulty, Senator O'Toole and I intend to propose some amendments when Committee Stage is taken to reflect some of the coroners' worries about this Bill. It is obvious that their concerns were not directly put to the Minister or his predecessor before the Bill was brought to the House.

It is important the coroners office should be modernised. I welcome the obvious concern to ensure that the needs of the families of the deceased are paramount. There is an obvious desire in the legislation to ensure that families are kept informed and better informed about what is going on. That concern is human rights-led rather than local-led. Families should be given full information at all times about what happens when there is an inquest — they should be comforted to some extent. The Bill reflects the need to ensure that coroners' inquiries are held for the bereaved and not for anybody else.

I would like to highlight some of the coroners' worries. I ask the Minister to reflect on them and to consider amendments aimed at addressing them on Committee Stage. The coroners' main worry is an understandable one. They have done an effective job in difficult administrative circumstances without any back-up, but they have real concerns about the introduction of these new State agencies. As I understand it, the agencies are being established to allow for the future widening of the remit of the coroners' inquiries. The Minister can correct me if I am wrong. In the past, such inquiries were really only concerned with establishing the cause of death. Their remit will now be widened to explain and investigate the general circumstances surrounding the death. I presume this legislation has been introduced on the basis that the expansion of that remit to allow coroners to report on the general circumstances of a death necessitates the establishment of new agencies, including the Garda Síochána Ombudsman.

The problem outlined by the coroners is that this legislation will result in many delays. The Minister said earlier that he hopes there will not be any great tensions between the various bodies. If there are many State agencies with different agendas, presumably they will all seek adjournments from time to time for various reasons. It is certain that the agencies will have their own agendas, even if they are laudable agendas. There has been a tradition of almost inevitably granting an adjournment to the Garda Síochána if it asks a coroner's inquiry for such an adjournment. If bodies like the Health and Safety Authority and the Garda Síochána Ombudsman are, like the Garda itself, able to play separate parts in coroners' inquiries, they may take a long time to conclude. That would extend the difficulties of the families of the bereaved, to some extent, which is not the purpose of the Bill. The Minister might think of a way around this problem. I do not know whether he should contemplate having two separate types of inquiry which each pursue the two goals which are moulded together in this Bill.

Photo of Michael McCarthyMichael McCarthy (Labour)
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The Senator's time has expired.

Photo of Shane RossShane Ross (Independent)
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Has the time I had intended to share with Senator O'Toole concluded?

Photo of Michael McCarthyMichael McCarthy (Labour)
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I am informed that there is no time left in this slot, which began over 15 minutes ago.

Photo of Shane RossShane Ross (Independent)
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That is fair enough. I can inform the Chair that Senator O'Toole intends to table amendments on Committee Stage.

Photo of Michael McCarthyMichael McCarthy (Labour)
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I thank Senator Ross.

Photo of Shane RossShane Ross (Independent)
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I will speak for one more minute. The coroners fear that the new arrangements will lead to delays of three or four years, which would not be in the interests of justice or the families. I will summarise the remaining matters about which the coroners are concerned in the 35 seconds of speaking time which are left to me.

Failure to separate the administrative and investigative quasi-judicial functions in this Bill is a cause for concern. This Bill is primary legislation and there is a concern that it is over-prescriptive. Some of the regulations and clauses in the Bill could well be left for the regulations governing coroners rather than be contained in primary legislation. I also note the lack of transitional arrangements in the Bill, which has caused a great deal of concern to coroners. I acknowledge the Minister is new to this portfolio and it is not his fault. I ask him to give greater consideration to the views of coroners when taking amendments to the Bill.

Photo of Déirdre de BúrcaDéirdre de Búrca (Green Party)
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I welcome the Minister to the House and thank him for his comprehensive overview of the Coroners Bill 2007. The Green Party welcomes this legislation because, as the Minister has pointed out, the legislative changes proposed within it represent a major reform of the law dealing with the investigation of deaths and the overall role of the coroner. The Bill will allow the coroner service, which, as the Minister said, is one of the State's oldest public services, to be transformed from a part-time service administered by individual coroners in conjunction with local authorities to a modern, co-ordinated national service. The purpose of the comprehensive reform of the existing legislation and the replacement of the Coroners Act 1962 is to take into account the contemporary jurisprudence of the Irish courts and the European Court of Human Rights. The Green Party is of the view that this Bill has succeeded in doing this to a quite satisfactory extent.

The Green Party regards certain provisions of the Bill as being significant, such as the ability of an inquest to examine the circumstances of a death and not merely its medical causes. This will provide an improved service to families of deceased persons because it will help both to explain deaths and to draw attention to possible public health and safety issues surrounding deaths.

The Green Party also welcomes the fact that the Bill specifically defines a death from MRSA as a reportable death. This is significant because fear of litigation often prevents hospitals and other institutions from carrying out such reporting.

Other significant provisions in the Bill include stronger powers for coroners to enter premises and seize documents on foot of a court order; the lifting of the current restriction on the number of witnesses coroners may call to an inquest; the introduction of new offences for those who refuse to give evidence and the introduction of High Court orders to oblige them to do so; new powers for the coroner to call expert witnesses; and the granting of free legal aid in certain cases involving a death while in the care or custody of State institutions.

Senator Mullen raised a concern about the proposed independence of the appointments process and the Green Party echoes those concerns. Independence is one of the very necessary criteria for an effective investigation. Senator Ross also queried the failure to separate the investigative and judicial functions of the coroner and the Green Party also has concerns about this issue. The investigation and decisions made regarding a death should have practical independence from those implicated and there should be a lack of institutional connection between the complaints body and those being investigated. This applies in particular to deaths while in Garda custody and the death of a person while in hospital or in another State institution. Perhaps the Minister would comment on this point.

The Green Party also notes the provision to retain the use of juries at inquests, unlike the trend in other common law jurisdictions. Will the Minister explain the reason for this decision to retain the use of juries at inquests? I note the mandatory use of juries in the case of death by road accident has been dispensed with.

Another speaker referred to the issue of suicide. While I would not expect a technical Bill such as this to go into the details of how an inquest would treat deaths by suicide, I wish to make a personal appeal to the Minister. I am involved with the Bray suicide support group and I am very aware of the anguish experienced by families. The inquest is often held well after the death and this reactivates the pain and anguish experienced by the family and friends of the deceased. The conditions and circumstances in which the inquest takes place are far from sympathetic or appropriate, given those circumstances. The ad hoc and somewhat informal nature of the coroners service to date means that families have found themselves in the public gaze and having to listen to the accounts of other families who have been through equally difficult circumstances as a result of a death of a loved one through suspected suicide. Given the growing number of young people dying by suicide, perhaps the Minister would consider providing for sensitivity in the procedures and the circumstances in which such inquests are carried out.

I welcome this Bill which the Green Party sees as essential in modernising the coroner service and ensuring the service operates in a way that reflects the principles of contemporary human rights legislation and good international practice. We acknowledge the resourcing of this service will be vital and we hope to be part of a Government that provides for that effectively. The process of transition from the current to the planned service will be challenging and will require careful and effective planning. The Green Party hopes to support the Minister and his Department in carrying out this process.

1:00 pm

Photo of Alex WhiteAlex White (Labour)
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I welcome the Minister to the House and I welcome this Bill on behalf of the Labour Party. I am relatively new to this issue although many of us will have personal experience of the coroner service, as I have over the years on sad occasions. I have also professionally represented families before coroners.

I am dealing with this issue in the round for the first time and I commend the drafters of this Bill on the clarity of language largely to be found in the Bill. Legislation is often criticised for arcane, difficult and sometimes indecipherable provisions and wording, but this Bill as drafted is a model of clarity and it is relatively easy to navigate one's way around it. That is not to say we agree with every element of the Bill.

I agreed with the Minister when he stated that society and the community owe a great debt of gratitude to coroners who have served over the decades. They have provided an invaluable public service in such a sensitive area.

I note the 1962 Act is well beyond its time for review and needs to be repealed and replaced by this legislation. It has only been subject to amendment on one occasion and I am proud to note that such amendment was done by my party two years ago when private Members' legislation was required to be introduced to deal with a specific issue at that time. It is now time to deal with the wider Bill and the issues it deals with.

Without prejudice to our entitlement to introduce amendments on Committee Stage, I note the provision which broadens out the investigation which a coroner is required to undertake. The who, where, why and how those of us practising in that area are all familiar with will be augmented by the provision that the coroner will also be required to look at the wider circumstances leading to the death of the individual concerned. This will give a broader remit to the coroner and is to be welcomed.

As a number of speakers have said, it is vital that the coroner is independent in the conduct of his or her duties. This is emphasised in the Bill but it should also be noted in this debate. In Senator Walsh's thoughtful contribution, he queried whether it was necessary or appropriate that coroners should operate in a full-time capacity. I believe it is, as it is consistent with the requirement that they be independent in the conduct of their duties and that they have no conflicts of interest. With regard to conflicts of interest, the worry is never actually about a conflict but about the perception of a conflict. It appears to be consistent with a requirement which flows from the European Convention on Human Rights but which in any event is proper, that a coroner should be absolutely independent in the manner of his or her appointment and also in the conduct of his or her duties. To act part time or to have to work elsewhere to earn money is not consistent with that requirement. I would respectfully disagree with any suggestion that this element of the Bill might be changed.

Section 25 deals with reportable deaths, which are listed in the Schedule. We will examine this in more detail on Committee Stage but reportable deaths should only be determined in the context of what the Bill is seeking to achieve. The resources available to a coroner should never enter into the calculation of what is a reportable death. Either a death is properly reportable in the public interest or it is not. There should be no question of resources or the absence of them entering into that calculation.

A coroner is required to arrive at and publish a verdict. It might be worthwhile to look again at the different types of verdict. We are familiar with the different verdicts in the coroners rules that currently apply but they might bear further analysis and consideration. Will the Minister consider defining and clarifying the different types of verdict in the primary legislation? I welcome the reference to the recommendation. We are familiar with cases where a jury might make a recommendation, often in the case of a death that occurred as a result of a public health failing. There is a welcome provision in the Bill that rather than a recommendation being made, and perhaps forgotten, the public body concerned must respond within a specified period and indicate what, if anything, it has done in respect of the recommendation.

Section 57 in respect of adjournments has been somewhat controversial. It was mentioned by Senator Walsh. The section makes it abundantly clear which bodies shall be entitled to apply to an inquest for an adjournment. The Oireachtas has established a Garda Ombudsman Commission and it is entirely appropriate that the commission should have the power to seek an adjournment of an inquest. That power should not be watered down or varied by the Minister during the passage of this legislation. It is important to have a Garda Ombudsman Commission and to protect the interests of persons who make complaints to it. When a person makes a complaint it does not necessarily follow that the complaint will be upheld but the person is entitled to the due process which the Garda Ombudsman Commission will apply to the complaint. Other powers and responsibilities have been given to the Garda Ombudsman Commission which it must carry out in the public interest, and it is entirely appropriate that it have this power.

There was a controversy last week into which I will not stray, but comments were made in the House in respect of that incident. It is inappropriate to suggest that it ought never to happen or that it should not happen. It is all very well for Senator Ross or the coroners or other bodies to say there is a proliferation of public agencies but an agency such as the Garda Ombudsman Commission was established for a reason. If there is to be joined-up public service and administration, it is right that the commission should have that power of intervention.

I note Senator Walsh's comments in respect of timely interventions and that perhaps there should be some restrictions regarding the timing of such interventions. I would be happy to consider any suggestions made in that regard once they do not disturb the fundamental position, namely, that the Garda Ombudsman Commission and the other bodies mentioned ought to have the power to ask the coroner to adjourn an inquest. If it is right for the Garda to do it, why should it not also be right for the Garda Ombudsman Commission or other similar bodies to do it where they are investigating a complaint?

I welcome the provision in section 63 relating to witnesses. It is a clarification and extension of the power of the coroner to call witnesses, and gives the coroner appropriate powers to ensure that witnesses attend and give evidence. There is also a welcome provision regarding legal aid. Some Members said that the circumstances in which legal aid might be granted were not sufficiently clear. Perhaps the Minister might respond to that. The Bill sets out various types of deaths in respect of which legal aid could be granted to somebody who wishes to attend an inquest, rather than the aid relating to the means of the person. That, perhaps, refers back to the legal aid provisions so there might be a relationship between the two provisions which we can deal with later, if necessary.

The Irish Human Rights Commission proposed to the Minister that gardaí ought not act as coroner's officers where an inquest is dealing with a death that took place in Garda custody. That proposal has been incorporated in the Bill. However, the commission also suggested that gardaí should not act as officers where the death had occurred as a result of Garda operations. That has not been included in the Bill. Perhaps the Minister would reconsider this. Where a death occurs arising from a Garda operation it would not be appropriate for a garda to act as a coroner's officer.

The important aspect of the legislation is that it sets up a professional service which will operate at a high standard. We ought to have such a service. I agree with Senator de Búrca that it must be well resourced. Many of us have attended coroners' courts where the facilities are inadequate, to say the least, which makes the process even more stressful for the people concerned. The Minister should ensure that the coroners' courts and their facilities are at a high standard so the highest quality service can be provided to the community.

Photo of Lisa McDonaldLisa McDonald (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the Bill. Unfortunately, unexplained deaths, murders and accidental deaths have become commonplace in our society. There were days in the not too distant past when people would have been shocked and the whole country would have reeled at the circumstances of such deaths. Nowadays we have become more and more attuned to modern day living and accidental deaths. It is obvious that reform of the current system is long overdue.

The Minister said in his speech that he could jump back 150 years. Certain parts of the system are medieval to say the least. Last year coroners dealt with 11,142 cases, and from them we had 2,085 inquests. That adds to the argument that we need a full-time coroner's service. In that regard I welcome this Bill. The coroner service must be professionally run. The aspects of the Bill that deal with administration and so on are overdue, but are widely welcomed. Members of the public do not feel that they are dealt with professionally in the Coroner's Court. This Bill redresses this situation and for that it is welcome.

The coroners are concerned that we appear to fail in this Bill to separate the administrative, investigative and quasi-judicial functions of the coroner. That is something on which I would welcome the Minister's comment. Perhaps the coroner's rules could address this area.

However, this legislation represents a comprehensive overhaul of the system. I welcome the fact that this will be regionally based and I would ask that the coroner's appointed will have local knowledge. If the coroner appointed is no longer the local person appointed by the county councils, we must ensure that a coroner with local knowledge is appointed. That is very important. When we are moving from 42 offices to a regional basis we need to be mindful of that.

The greater powers the coroner will have to investigate the wider circumstances of a death, as opposed to the narrow powers currently there are welcome. It will bring a whole new facet into the investigation.

The process whereby the coroner will be allowed to make a recommendation is a very welcome development in this Bill. It will allow the coroner to comment. Senator Walsh mentioned suicide in his thoughtful submission on the Bill. It is very important that we can comment on certain aspects of suicide cases, to suggest for example that this should not happen again or to speak on matters of public importance. The example that springs to mind is the example of the Wexford coroner commenting on the aspects of the deaths of the Grace family, Sharon Grace and her two little daughters. He was widely criticised for it. However, it is important the coroner has that power because it can ensure that certain suicide cases will not happen again.

The most important point, when we bring everything together in this Bill is that family members are given a status and the coroner is obliged to keep them informed of developments. It is humane and certainly within the spirit of the European Convention on Human Rights. A criticism of the current system is that families are not briefed. Ultimately, the ability to impart more information to families will assist in what is a tragic circumstance for any family.

I agree with Senator Walsh when he says that perhaps we could look at the timeframe and include time limits into the Bill. It would be a cause of concern for the ombudsman, the Garda and so on, whose involvement is crucial, that matters would be delayed. Such delays in inquests mean that family members suffer because they cannot get on with their lives. We need to guard against that and I would welcome the Minister's comments on it.

I hope the interim measure of a certificate of the fact of death will be accepted by insurance companies, banks, etc. as a substitute until the death certificate is issued. This issue was raised by Senator Rónán Mullen. I have queries regarding the Legal Aid Board in the context of the Bill on which I would welcome the Minister's comments.

Remuneration of barristers, solicitors, medical practitioners and such people is vital to ensure they partake in the process and to avoid a situation where we cannot recruit coroners for the posts. Budgetary aspects must be examined to ensure a smooth transition. I will welcome the Minister's comments on the aspects of this that have been agreed. It is important given that, in being asked to take on the role of coroner, people are being asked to forgo what could be potentially a lucrative career.

The Bill is a fundamental change and improvement of the current coronial death investigation system. I commend it to the House.

Photo of Paudie CoffeyPaudie Coffey (Fine Gael)
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I wish to share time with Senator Frances Fitzgerald. I welcome the Minister to the House and thank him for staying to listen to Members' contributions. I am aware of his busy schedule.

In my brief contribution, I wish to emphasise and focus on the impact on families of the deceased. I have seen at first hand, as I am sure have many public representatives, the stress and trauma families suffer when a family member dies in tragic circumstances and during the fulfilment of the inquest process.

Fine Gael welcomes the general thrust of the Bill which certainly will streamline and modernise what has been and ad hoc system to date, the excellent service coroners have given notwithstanding. It is important in passing legislation to provide the resources to deliver on its provisions. There is no point in doing otherwise. Unless we deliver to the families, where it matters, there is no point in legislating in this area. It is excellent to have the Bill before us but we should see proper resources given to coroners to carry out the functions given to them under this legislation.

The post mortem process needs to be subject to serious analysis. Senator Jim Walsh and Senator Rónán Mullen said there were significant delays in results being returned from post mortems, which causes much unnecessary stress for families. I am aware where people were told it could take up to nine months to have toxicology reports returned. This is unacceptable. The circumstances were tragic and thanks to the intervention of the Ombudsman, the reports were returned within two months. A genuine attempt is being made through this legislation to address these problems.

The legislation has the potential to be excellent in that it gives coroners the resources they require to provide a professional and more modern service. We should remember that the coroner service is one for the living, for those left behind. I am glad to be a Member of the House to see the legislation being passed and I will watch it carefully in the future.

Photo of Frances FitzgeraldFrances Fitzgerald (Fine Gael)
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I congratulate the Minister on his new portfolio and wish him well in it. There is a specific issue to which I draw his attention in the context of the Bill and in which I ask him to take a particular interest to see what he can do through the legislation that would be of assistance. The issue is suicide recording practices. The Bill is relevant to this and perhaps the Minister and his officials would examine the legislation in this context to see whether any amendments to it are necessary or whether it is a question of practice. In addition, during his discussion with the coroners, he should examine what would be helpful in this area. As we know, suicide and self-harm is a significant public health issue. For example, 493 deaths by suicide occurred in 2004, and nearly 11,000 episodes of self-harm were recorded in our accident and emergency departments. This is a major issue, and there are many agencies dealing with it — the Irish Association of Suicidology, the National Office for Suicide Prevention, and the National Suicide Research Foundation — and much work being done. We also have a National Strategy for Action on Suicide Prevention. There is currently a proposal to establish a national inquiry into suicide in Ireland, in which the coroners could play an interesting and useful role. There is also discussion of a pilot project involving a number of coroners in Cork. The Minister's Department should encourage this and make sure the project takes place.

The new Coroners Bill and the management structure proposed within it offer the opportunity to collect more robust, systematic data on suicide at a personal level, and aggregate it nationally so that better figures are available. This would provide more information from a socio-demographic point of view, which could be used to plan proper prevention programmes. The type of systematic data collection that is made possible by this Bill would thus allow for a more uniform approach to inquest hearings, which would be extremely helpful.

There are several questions which the Minister might consider and return to at a later stage. Does the Bill allow for the collection of psychological autopsy data, as suggested by the NSRF scoping study, which could then be passed on and aggregated at a national level? This would be extremely helpful. The question of increased support for the bereaved is also mentioned in the Bill. Will the chief coroner, for example, have the ability to select appropriately qualified staff to undertake this sensitive task? Another issue the Minister might consider is that the coroners currently work to a criminal definition of suicide, which requires establishment beyond reasonable doubt. A more socially relevant civil law approach would be the test of balance of probabilities, which would allow more actual suicides to be recorded as such. Would the power of the chief coroner under section 14 allow him or her to make such a submission to the relevant Minister? There are a number of ways in which, either by amendment to the legislation or perhaps a guide to practice, a useful contribution could be made in the area of suicide prevention.

Section 9 contains the phrase "contribute to the enhancement of public health and safety". Would the Minister consider an amendment along the lines of, "by facilitating the use of information obtained in inquests for the purpose of a national inquiry into suicide deaths and other deaths leading to a coroner's inquest"? Such an addition would be helpful at that point. In addition, the Minister might consider amending section 48 so that an inquiry is allowed if it would be helpful at an individual level for the next of kin or, at a more general level, for public health and safety. This would also present an opportunity to collect useful data and it would be helpful if the criteria to allow coroners to do so were built into the legislation. I ask the Minister to consider these issues when the Bill reaches Committee Stage.

Photo of Geraldine FeeneyGeraldine Feeney (Fianna Fail)
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I was following the debate in my office and I had not intended to contribute, but there are a few points I would like to make. I welcome the Minister to the House. As someone who was unfortunate enough to have had to attend the Coroner's Court when my husband died a number of years ago, I have first-hand experience in this area. I wish to put on record the excellent service of coroners all over the country — those professional men and women who, under very difficult circumstances, deal with people such as myself. Senator Paudie Coffey mentioned the terrible delay in obtaining post mortems, and he is right. People must wait for the post mortem while they are torn apart with grief. They are in another world, and suddenly they are caught up with all of this. It is a terrible time for people who are going through it. It is the loneliest thing in the world to get into one's car in Sligo and drive to Dublin to obtain a death certificate, particularly for people who are left with young children or mothers and fathers who lose a son or daughter. It is a terrible time in people's lives.

I ask the Minister to consider incorporating in the Bill a provision for support services, as mentioned by Senator Frances Fitzgerald, in order that people who are going through this process will have an idea of what lies ahead on the morning of the inquest. People who are not familiar with a court set-up are completely ignorant — they do not even know who they will meet in the court, and they are not familiar with the surroundings or with the people who will be there. From that point of view, it would be helpful if people who are going through this could have an idea of what is going on. In my case, the coroner concerned had a word with me a couple of weeks before the inquest and told me what was going to happen. I was lucky in that my case was dealt with quickly, simply because there were not many other cases, but in this day and age there are many more cases because of the society in which we live. It is part and parcel of what we have to go through. A process should be introduced by which people in this predicament can obtain support and information on what is happening. I did not know there would be a jury, and I did not know that anyone from the Live Register could serve on a jury. There is a panel, but if they cannot fill the jury from the panel, they go out on the street and bring in people. It would have been helpful for me to know this. It is worth bearing in mind this sort of thing.

Photo of Brian Lenihan JnrBrian Lenihan Jnr (Minister, Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform; Dublin West, Fianna Fail)
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I thank Senators on all sides of the House for the broad welcome they gave this measure. Many good points were made, and they can be made again on Committee Stage. I propose to examine with care what the Senators have said between now and Committee Stage, and investigate how the concerns of different Senators, although some of them were conflicting, may be addressed.

In a sense, the whole thrust of this legislation is to address concerns such as those raised by Senator Geraldine Feeney. The Bill is designed to provide more backup for coroners, as well as a modern code of legislation under which to operate. These are the two essential features of this legislation. Senator Eugene Regan brought the debate off to a good start by welcoming the Bill and, like the good counsel he is, observed the Second Stage convention. He did not dwell on the details of the Bill, but raised one pertinent point echoed only by Senator Paudie Coffey, which is the matter of resourcing. Indicative figures of the type of funding involved are given in the explanatory memorandum, and I intend to engage in a detailed analysis, with my officials, of how we can fund this operation. As always, it is not just about the allocation of resources, but also the efficient use of our public service resources. These issues must be considered in the context of the implementation of this Bill.

As I do not intend to go through all the points raised, I hope Senators will forgive me if I do not touch on everything. Senator Jim Walsh mentioned the appointment of coroners. It has been traditional to appoint coroners from the medical or legal profession. However, the ideal coroner would be qualified in both. It has been the experience of many practitioners that a coroner who has a qualification in both of these areas is very well suited to the position. That said, we do not require it because few people in the country have both qualifications and of those who do, some engage in extremely lucrative occupations. It is difficult to find someone who has both qualifications. In the case of a person with legal qualifications we should examine how the deficit on the medical side can be made up and for a person with medical qualifications how the deficit on the legal side can be made up. This is highly skilled work and requires a professional qualification.

The coroner will receive the support of the Garda Síochána when required. At present, coroners are dependent in an informal way on the services of the Garda Síochána. One purpose of the Bill is to ensure that a coroner's staff do the work relating to the summonsing and notification of witnesses and jurors.

Senator Walsh raised the issue of suicide which has always been a reportable death and will continue to be so. Senator Fitzgerald asked whether we can structure this legislation to ensure information about this topic is available to those valuable research bodies which engage in social research on this subject. I will consider it but I am not sure whether it requires a formal statutory setting. At a minimum we must ensure the legislation does not inhibit such research and that such information can be made available.

Senator Mullen raised a number of points better addressed on Committee Stage. One point both he and Senator de Búrca raised was the independence of coroners in the performance of their functions, which the Bill ensures and enshrines. We can review the Bill on Committee Stage if Senators are concerned this principle is not entrenched to a sufficient degree. It is my intention in tabling the Bill to ensure coroners have independence and there is no question of it being interfered with.

On an associated subject, Senator de Búrca asked why juries will be retained when the tendency in many common law jurisdictions is to dispense with the requirement for a jury. The European Court of Human Rights insists that in certain circumstances we should have this element of public participation in the inquiry. Other common law jurisdictions such as New Zealand and Australia are not parties to the European Convention on Human Rights and are freer to legislate in this area than we are. A case can be made for not having juries but a position was arrived at in Strasbourg and I propose to respect it.

Senator Ross referred to consultation with coroners. I am advised they have been in extensive and on-going consultation with the Department on the shape and content of the Bill and that my predecessor met the Coroners Society of Ireland on a number of occasions to discuss the reform. I am open to discussions with them about it and I have no difficulty with it.

Senator Alex White commended the coroners as did Senator McDonald, for which I thank them. In discussing legislative reform and improving practices one may sound as though one does not acknowledge the tremendous work done under difficult circumstances by coroners.

Senator Alex White also raised a number of other issues. One matter of substance and current controversy which he touched on is the issue of the adjournment of a coroner's inquest at the instigation of a statutory body. A balance must be struck and it is important that we get it right in the Bill. It is important that statutory bodies with inquiries to conduct can conduct them. It is also important that in appropriate circumstance coroners can get on with their business. Senator Alex White summarised very well the need for this balance. I am prepared to examine the details of the legislation on Committee Stage to see whether we can calibrate this balance correctly.

I have gone through most of the points of substance. Many points were made which would be more appropriately addressed on Committee Stage. I propose to read the transcript of this debate and revisit these issues.

Question put and agreed to.

Photo of Pat MoylanPat Moylan (Fianna Fail)
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When is it proposed to take Committee Stage?

Photo of Jim WalshJim Walsh (Fianna Fail)
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On Wednesday, 10 October 2007.

Photo of Alex WhiteAlex White (Labour)
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Is it really proposed to take Committee Stage of this Bill so soon?

Photo of Pat MoylanPat Moylan (Fianna Fail)
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Committee Stage cannot be taken before the date specified.

Photo of Alex WhiteAlex White (Labour)
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I understand.

Committee Stage ordered for Wednesday, 10 October 2007.

Photo of Pat MoylanPat Moylan (Fianna Fail)
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When is it proposed to sit again?

Photo of Jim WalshJim Walsh (Fianna Fail)
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At 2.30 p.m. on Wednesday, 10 October 2007.