Monday, 26 April 2021
Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters
I mean no disrespect to the Minister of State, Deputy Feighan, but I am deeply disappointed that no Minister from the Department of Justice is here today, given the seriousness of the matter that I am raising.
Last week, Professor Phil Scraton released a damning report of the inquest system. He referred to how the original inquest into the 48 deaths in the Stardust fire was an abject failure. One does not need to tell the families of the victims that their treatment at the hands of the State has been one of systemic abuse from the manner in which the original inquest was rushed to the way there was a finding of probable arson, the compensation scheme where survivors were told to pull their clothes up and show their injuries, and the threats that they came under of losing their homes if they tried to pursue the owners of the nightclub in the courts.Despite all of this, the families never gave up in their quest for justice. In November 2018, 48,000 signed postcards were handed in to the Office of the Attorney General - 1,000 cards for each young person who lost his or her life that night. This was a bid to show that the public is 100% behind the families on this issue. Ten months later, the Attorney General granted a fresh inquest. It seemed that, finally, justice would be forthcoming.
Two Ministers of Justice have since gone on the record saying that funding would be provided to ensure the inquests would be carried out appropriately and in a way that is compliant with human rights. The Taoiseach stood in the Dáil on budget day and announced €8 million in funding for the inquest. It gives me no pleasure, therefore, to stand here today and tell the Minister of state that the families are in despair. I encourage him to go outside and talk to them. They are outside Leinster House today. They have waited 40 years for justice and now they are being asked for PPS numbers, bank statements and payslips. They are being asked what kind of cars they drive. I know this is not the responsibility of the Minister of State's Department, but does he honestly think this is an appropriate way to treat these families after they have waited 40 years?
The Department was repeatedly warned that the legal aid route was the wrong route to go down in respect of an inquest of this significance. A special purpose vehicle was required to ensure that no family would be denied access to justice and that the inquest would be human rights compliant. All the Government had to do was look to the inquests undertaken in respect of Hillsborough and Ballymurphy and follow the mechanisms used in these cases in respect of the Stardust inquest. Instead, in its wisdom, the Department insisted on ploughing ahead down the legal aid route and now we are in this situation with families being means tested, which is causing them great hurt and which runs the risk of causing division among the families.
The Civil Legal Aid Act 1995 allows for a financial waiver but there has never been a statutory instrument to give effect to this provision. Will the Minister of State give a commitment as to when the families can expect this issue to be resolved? Emergency statutory instruments were possible when it came to mandatory hotel quarantine but it seems that the families of the Stardust victims are always at the back of the queue in their dealings with the State. All we hear is that the Attorney General is looking at the issue. That is not good enough. We need a timeframe. Can the Minister of State provide that today? Can I go out to those families and tell them when they can expect a statutory instrument or when they can expect this issue to be resolved? Will it be days, weeks or months? How much longer will they have to wait?
I thank the Senator and apologise for the confusion. We had the Minister of State, Deputy James Browne, down to speak. I apologise again and thank the Senator for her commitment with regard to this very sensitive issue.
I convey the apologies of my colleague, the Minister for Justice, Deputy McEntee, who regrets that she cannot be here to deal with this matter due to another commitment. I also apologise on behalf of my colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy James Browne. On behalf of the Minister and the Government, I thank the Senator for raising this matter.
The Government is committed to ensuring that the Stardust inquest proceeds as soon as it is safe to do so, having regard to the public health guidelines. Extensive work has already been undertaken to this end. Government funding of up to €8 million has been allocated for the new inquest, which will cover a number of areas including legal aid for families. A bespoke courtroom has been built at the Royal Dublin Society, RDS, for the purposes of the inquest and information technology facilities have been developed to ensure that family members will also be able to follow the events remotely when not in the courtroom. A number of pre-inquest hearings have been held remotely and the courtroom is ready for the Stardust inquest, as soon as it is safe to begin.
The last remaining issue relates to legal aid to the families. The Courts and Civil Law (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2013, made a set of amendments to the Coroners Act 1962 and the Civil Legal Aid Act 1995 that enabled legal aid at inquests in certain circumstances. Section 60 of the Coroners Act 1962, as amended, provides for a procedure whereby a family member of a deceased person may apply to the coroner for a request to be submitted to the board in respect of the granting of legal aid. Applications for legal aid have been certified by Dr. Cullinane.These applications are with the Legal Aid Board.
Officials of the Department reviewed alternative arrangements for funding legal professionals which were not considered to be the best options in terms of meeting the needs of the families compared with the facility provided by the Legal Aid Board. Ordinary applicants through the legal aid system pay an initial fee and support is provided on the basis of the means test. This is how the legal aid scheme works for all individuals who seek its help. It is a widely respected system. The Legal Aid Board notified my Department that some of the families of Stardust victims would not qualify for legal aid as they exceed income limits currently in force for the Legal Aid Board as required by the Civil Legal Aid Act 1995. The Department of Justice is actively investigating the position and engaging with the Office of the Attorney General to explore possible mechanisms to provide for legal aid for the very small number of families who do not meet the financial eligibility requirements under the Act.
As the intention is to provide the maximum support possible to the families, it is necessary to consider how to make this possible, which will require a new arrangement to be put in place, such as new regulations. This is being and has been actively worked on by officials in various Departments since the issue was identified to ensure an appropriate solution is found. The Department has gone further than the legislation by committing to making payments to legal professionals secured by the families one month in arrears, rather than after the tribunal, to minimise any concerns the professionals may have. The families and their legal professionals will have a response on this issue shortly and the Stardust inquest should commence a few weeks thereafter.
I thank the Minister of State but his reply still leaves two matters unresolved. First, there is still no clarity on the timeframe. What does "shortly" mean in this context? Is it days, weeks or months? Several relatives of the Stardust victims have been lost in the past year. They have been waiting 40 years. What does "shortly" mean in this context?
Second, his reply did not address the issue of families of victims of the Stardust fire being asked for their financial details. I do not think it is appropriate, in light of the significance of the inquest and the 40 years they have had to wait, that they are now being asked for all of these details when they were promised that, finally, this inquest would have no barriers to them accessing justice and that it would cater for all of the families, not just some of them. That is the message the families have asked me to deliver here today. All of the families need to be treated equally and they should not be means tested.
I again thank the Senator for raising this matter. I assure her the Government, the Minister, Deputy McEntee, and I are committed to ensuring the Stardust inquest will proceed as soon as it is safe to do so, having regard to public health guidelines. As I outlined, the Department of Justice is actively investigating the position and is engaging with the Office of the Attorney General to explore possible mechanisms to provide for legal aid for the very small number of families who do not meet the financial eligibility requirements under the Act. This is being and has been actively worked on by officials in various Departments since the issue was identified to ensure an appropriate solution is found. The families and their legal representatives will have a response shortly. I hope we can determine what "shortly" means. I will try to get that information from the Department.
The Senator outlined that some of the families are being asked for their financial details, which is causing a lot of hurt. I will try to get an answer for the Senator on that issue.