Tuesday, 31 January 2017
I will not even need that. Go raibh maith agat, a Chathaoirligh, for selecting this matter for discussion. It gives me great pleasure to welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Catherine Byrne, a lady for whom I have enormous regard. I wish her well in her portfolio. She is already doing a great job. It is a difficult portfolio but it gives me great pleasure in the Seanad to acknowledge and salute the work she is doing.
I tabled this matter because I firmly believe the set-up with coroners in this country must be reviewed and updated. It is fair to say the coroners legislation governing the operation of all the coroners in this country is outdated and badly needs to be upgraded. Certainly, in light of recent issues that have been raised in our hospitals, particularly when it comes to newborn babies dying or being found dead, a coroner's inquiry should be mandatory in all those cases. We have seen scandalous examples in a tiny minority of hospitals where mothers and their babies have died and it is totally unacceptable for there to be no inquiry. It should be mandatory to have a coroner's inquest into all maternal deaths.
Having the Coroners Service under the auspices of local authorities does not make sense in the modern era. I know the Department of Justice and Equality is the lead agency, but in all local cases, the corners are paid for by the local authority and that comes from local authority budgets. Many Senators regularly get correspondence from local authorities seeking additional funding for various services. In fairness to all the local authorities, they have made great strides in reducing cost, cutting waste and so forth.The cost over which they have no control is that relating to coroners. They receive a coroner's bill every year and must pay it. They cannot question it, negotiate a reduction or seek value for money. They never know whether the bill will be large or small. Therefore, it is difficult for councils and finance officers in local authorities to budget for the expense.
Unfortunately, there have been many tragedies in my county, Clare, and in many other counties with coastlines. In fact, the services of coroners are required a great deal more than we would like. For the sake of all citizens of this country, and in the interest of the profession of coroners, we need the long promised legislation to be delivered as a matter of urgency. This is one particular statute and set-up that badly needs to be brought into the 21st century.
I thank the Senator for his statement. On behalf of the Tánaiste and Minister for Justice and Equality, who cannot be here today, I thank him for raising this subject that affords an opportunity to update the House of the most recent developments. I acknowledge his active involvement in promoting reform of the system in which the coroners operate.
Senator Conway, along with other members of the Joint Committee on Justice and Equality, met officials from the Tánaiste's Department on 23 November 2016 to continue engagement on this matter. The officials updated the committee on the extensive work that has already undertaken on the legal and medical aspects of the comprehensive review of the Coroners Bill 2007 directed by the Tánaiste.
The Tánaiste has now established a dedicated coroner unit in her Department. The unit will develop policy and contribute to the review of the legislative provisions with the clear mandate to do what needs to be done to bring about reform as soon as is practical. The unit became operational at the beginning of this month. It has started engagement with relevant stakeholders and a review of the latest developments in coroner organisations in similar states with a common law heritage.
The critical issue is that any proposals brought forward to the Oireachtas to move to a modern coroner system must be coherent and cost-effective. Most importantly, our new coronial law and service must meet our obligations to the people of this State and also those obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights.
The Coroners Bill 2007 was a significant attempt to bring about modernisation of both the law and practice of the coroner's investigation and the nature and role of the office of coroner itself. Responsibility would be transferred from local authorities to the Minister for Justice and Equality, with a new post of chief coroner, full-time coroners and a new central coroner service to provide enhanced support to coroners and to liaise with bereaved families. To operate the intensive requirements for improved coroner death investigation services, as set out in the 2007 Bill, and allowing for developments since, we must examine and decide on an appropriate delivery system. The new coroner unit will have to urgently consider whether the full-time model proposed in 2007 is still the optimum approach. This would end the current part-time coronial service, provided by either lawyers or doctors, in jurisdictions based on county or sub-county divisions. Such an approach has already been taken in the modernised coroner services of Northern Ireland and New Zealand. Those States also operate a lawyer-only coroner model.
While not the focus of today's discussion, I should mention the recent proposals to amend the law with regard to making certain deaths subject to mandatory inquests and to add to the range of permissible inquest verdicts put forward by Deputy Clare Daly and Senator Pádraig Mac Lochlainn, respectively, in the Dáil and Seanad. Their proposals will be integrated into the review being conducted by the coroner unit in the Department.
I thank the Minister of State for her positive and comprehensive reply. It would be remiss of me not to pay tribute to Deputy Clare Daly and Senator Mac Lochlainn - a former Deputy - for the immense work they have done on this issue.The news from the Department is good. I sincerely hope that by this time next year we will have new coroners legislation in place and that the system will be in line with international best practice.
I have taken note of what the Senator said. I concur with the reply from the Tánaiste and Minister for Justice and Equality to the effect that the current cohort of coroners strive to offer the best possible service within the confines of the existing administrative framework. The Department agrees that there is a need to get on with a long-term plan to modernise the system. The aim is to move from the original 19th century approach to one that is suitable for the 21st century. The new coroner service must provide for a better service in the nature and speed of its response to persons touched by deaths reported to the coroner.
The Senator made particular reference to the death of babies and argued that some cases are not taken seriously enough. I agree with him in that regard. I again thank the Senator. I have taken notes on his contribution and will bring them to the attention of the Tánaiste and Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald.