Minister Flanagan announces passage of the Coroners (Amendment) Bill
Bill will significantly strengthen and modernise powers of coroners
Key provisions on reporting and investigation of maternal and perinatal deaths
Enhances compliance with European Convention on Human Rights
10 July 2019
The Minister for Justice and Equality, Charlie Flanagan T.D., announced today that the Coroners (Amendment) Bill 2018 has now passed both Houses of the Oireachtas.
Making the point that the Bill will amend the existing legislation to significantly clarify, strengthen and modernise the powers available to coroners in the reporting, investigation and inquest of deaths, the Minister said:
“This is a very important Bill which has been a priority for me personally and for the Government. It allows a wider scope for inquiry at inquests, clarifying that they are not limited to establishing the medical cause of death, but that they may also seek to establish, to the extent the coroner considers necessary, the circumstances in which the death occurred.”
The Bill is a key reform in the context of compliance with Ireland’s obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights. It provides new powers for coroners to direct production of relevant evidence, enter premises to obtain relevant records, secure attendance of witnesses at inquest, and compel witnesses to answer questions at the inquest. In the case of an unexplained hospital death for example, the Bill empowers the coroner to direct the health institution to provide the medical records of the deceased person in time to inform the coroner’s post mortem examination.
Referring to ways in which the Bill will contribute to public confidence, the Minister added:
“More particularly, the Bill addresses key questions in a number of high-profile cases which have caused great public unease – that some maternal deaths and perinatal deaths occurring in hospitals, which should have been reported to coroners because they raised issues of medical error and were ‘unnatural deaths’ under the Coroners Act 1962 – were not so reported. Bereaved families, and in some instances even coroners, experienced considerable difficulty in obtaining basic information that should have been provided to them. That was, and is, unacceptable.”
The Bill will require mandatory reporting to a coroner and mandatory inquest in all cases of maternal death. It will also require mandatory reporting and inquest of any death occurring in State custody or detention, and mandatory reporting to a coroner of all stillbirths, intrapartum deaths and perinatal deaths. Such reporting is already established as good practice.
The Minister said of these provisions:
“These changes to the law will ensure clarity for responsible persons, including hospital authorities, and will support the development of transparent and accountable oversight for checking and investigating certain types of death. Most importantly, they will support timely and transparent provision of information by health and other authorities to bereaved families.”
The Minister added:
“I want to also acknowledge the families and supporters of those women whose maternal deaths I have already referred to. They attended many of the Oireachtas debates on this Bill, and I know that the changes it provides are very important to them. I hope this new legislation will provide a positive legacy for them. ”
The Bill provides that coroners may seek enforcement by the High Court, if needed, of many of the new powers. It also includes a new provision for a coroner to seek directions from the High Court on any doubtful or unexplored point of law regarding the performance of the coroner’s functions – a consultative ‘case stated’ procedure. It is expected that this facility will be rarely needed, but it is considered that it will be valuable in clarifying and developing coronial law for the future.
Referring to the contributions of two deputies who have since been elected to the European Parliament, the Minister said:
“I want to acknowledge the extensive work and contribution of MEP and former Deputy Clare Daly, through her earlier Private Members Bill on the issue of maternal deaths. I would like also to recall the commitment shown by my predecessor, MEP and former Minister Frances Fitzgerald, to ensuring that the Government Bill would fully address those issues. Today’s Bill incorporates all the amendments sought by Deputy Daly, while also providing for a wide range of other key reforms to coronial law.”
The Minister concluded “It is my firm intention to seek early enactment, and provide for rapid commencement, of the Bill.”
Note to Editors:
· The Bill will now be sent to the President for his signature. The text as passed by the Oireachtas will be published shortly.
· The Coroners (Amendment) Bill 2018 contains a number of key provisions to strengthen the effectiveness of the coroner’s inquest, and improve compliance with our obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights. They include:
- Clarifying that the purpose of the inquest goes beyond establishing the medical cause of death, to establishing the circumstances in which death took place (though it will remain the position that an inquest does not make any finding of civil or criminal liability);
- Strengthening the coroner's powers to summon witnesses to an inquest, and to direct a witness to produce documents and evidence, or answer questions;
- New powers for the coroner, acting under a warrant from the District Court, to enter and inspect premises, and to take copies or take possession of any documents or material relevant to the inquest;
- Appropriate penalties for a witness not co-operating with the inquest;
- Express requirements for mandatory reporting, inquest and post-mortem in all maternal and late maternal deaths,;
- Mandatory reporting to a coroner of all stillbirths and infant deaths; and
- The provision of assistance to the Coroner by a designated officer of the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission (GSOC), rather than a Garda, in certain where the death in question is the subject of a GSOC investigation under Part 4 of the Garda Síochána Act 2005.
In relation to maternal deaths, the Bill:
- applies to both maternal deaths and late maternal deaths, whether direct or indirect, defined in accordance with the internationally-recognised World Health Organisation definitions,
- introduces mandatory reporting, post-mortem examination and inquest, in all cases of maternal death or late maternal death, and
- extends the scheme of legal aid for a family member of the deceased at inquest, introduced in 2013 for certain categories of deaths, to cases of maternal death or late maternal death.
In relation to perinatal deaths and stillbirths, the Bill provides for mandatory reporting to a coroner of stillbirths, intrapartum deaths and infant deaths, and for the first time, a statutory basis for a coroner to inquire into a stillbirth.
Reporting of deaths:
· The Bill provides for a new Part IIA in the Coroners Act 1962, specifying more clearly which types of deaths are required to be reported to a coroner, and which persons are responsible for reporting them.
· It also includes a new Second Schedule containing a list of specific types of mandatory reportable deaths, which expressly includes any maternal death or late maternal death, and any death of a stillborn child, death intra partum or infant death.
· Reporting a death to a coroner does not mean that it would automatically be subject to a post-mortem examination or an inquest, or that the report would have to be made by a bereaved family. Normally the report is made by one of the responsible persons listed in new section 16B of the Coroners Act, as inserted by the Bill. A doctor reporting the death to the coroner must indicate whether he or she is satisfied in the circumstances to certify that the death was due to natural causes. Where no cause for concern arises, such a certificate is sufficient under the Coroners Acts.
· Of 12,061 deaths reported to coroners in Ireland in 2018, 3,375 went for post-mortem examination, and 2,092 went to inquest.