Check against Delivery
Conference Dinner of the Coroners Society of Ireland
8 September, 2018
Address by Mr. Charlie Flanagan, T.D.
Minister for Justice and Equality
President of the Coroners Society of Ireland,
Members of the Coroners Society of Ireland,
President of the Coroners Society of England and Wales and members of that Society,
Ladies and Gentlemen.
I am very pleased to be with you in Portlaoise tonight on the occasion of your annual Conference Diner. This is my first public engagement as Minister for Justice and Equality with the Coroners Society of Ireland. I am all the more pleased to be here, as my old friend; Eugene O’Connor is your President.
I am delighted to acknowledge the warm welcome extended to my wife and me this evening. I am sure that this warm welcome has also been extended to your colleague coroners from England and Wales. We share a long and common tradition of coronial death investigation that will benefit from the sharing of experiences in the complex and evolving area of coronial law and practice.
The Coroners Society plays a very important role in representing the views of Irish coroners as a body. There are continuing, positive and constructive relations between the Society and my Department. The detailed and expert contributions of the Society over recent years, on legislative reform, have been particularly appreciated by my Department, and I will come back to that subject shortly. I want to continue that positive relationship. I will ensure that as we go forward, my Department will continue to support the Society. My senior officers responsible for coronial law, policy and operations are here tonight.
This is not an evening for long-winded speeches. However, this opportunity to address the Society permits me, before the widest possible audience of coroners, to acknowledge your work and to thank you for the contribution you make. The coroner is one of the most ancient of our public services and yet it remains a vital service. Coroners continue to have the important, difficult and delicate task to investigate and explain to the greatest extent possible, the deaths of loved ones to their family, their friends and to the wider society.
I noted from the Conference Academic Programme, the extent and range of matters that fall to the consideration of coroners. You encounter complex problems and sensitive issues in carrying out your functions. The urgent demands of society and next of kin increasingly place a heavy burden on you to ensure the best possible public investigation into the cause of death in those cases reported to you.
The Coroners Act 1962, although it has many good features, needs modernisation to better serve our citizens, to clarify and strengthen the powers available to coroners, and to support full compliance with the State’s obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights.
On becoming Minister for Justice and Equality, I determined to maintain the priority attached by my predecessor for the priority development of the Coroners (Amendment) Bill. The Bill, as published on 31 July last, provides for a very significant and extensive modernisation of the existing legislation relating to coroners. It contains a number of key provisions that will strengthen the effectiveness of the coroner’s inquest, and improve our compliance with the European Convention on Human Rights. These include:
Stating that the purpose of the inquest goes beyond establishing the medical cause of death, to establishing the circumstances in which death took place.
Greater clarity and transparency in the mandatory reporting of certain types of deaths, with general categories of mandatory reportable deaths are expressly set out in the Bill. A detailed list of specific examples are provided in the Schedule. The Bill also clarifies and expands the categories of persons who have a duty to report such deaths. It will be an offence for such a person, not to do so.
Express requirements for mandatory reporting, post-mortem examination and inquest of a death occurring in a range of specified situations that constitute State custody or detention.
- A requirement for mandatory reporting, post-mortem examination and inquest, in all cases of maternal deaths. In these maternal death cases, an exception to mandatory inquest is provided, following consultation with the family, but at the coroner’s discretion, reflecting the sensitivity of these cases.
- This new provision on maternal deaths addresses the findings of inquests and inquiries in a number of recent cases, which have caused great public unease. Some maternal deaths, occurring in hospitals, which raised clear issues of possible medical error or misadventure, were not reported to coroners – as they should have been under the 1962 Act. Family members, and even coroners, sometimes experienced considerable difficulties in obtaining proper disclosure and co-operation from the institutions concerned.
- Similar concerns have arisen in certain cases of perinatal and infant deaths. The Bill, therefore, provides for mandatory reporting of stillbirths, deaths intra partum and infant deaths. However, post mortem examination and inquest in such cases will remain, as at present, at the coroner’s discretion.
The Bill further provides for:
Updating and modernising the provisions regarding post-mortem examinations, to take account of forensic developments and current practice.
Strengthening the coroner's powers to summon witnesses to an inquest, and to direct a witness to produce documents and evidence, or answer questions.
Specific provisions on the notice of an inquest to be given to family members of the deceased person and on access to a report of a post-mortem examination.
Providing a power for a coroner to obtain specialist expert advice on an unusual technical issue, if necessary for an inquiry into a death.
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.
Removing the mandatory requirement to sit with a jury for road traffic deaths.
Appropriate new penalties for a witness not co-operating with the inquest.
Extending the scheme of legal aid for a family member of the deceased at inquest, introduced in 2013 for certain categories of deaths, to also cover maternal death cases.
Finally, the Bill also includes a number of necessary interim updates on administrative aspects, which are required following the recent transfer of administrative responsibility for the Dublin Coroner District from the relevant local authorities to my Department.
These are extensive provisions. However, I should immediately add, that I have already secured the support of the Government for the priority drafting of further amendments, which I intend to bring forward at Committee Stage. These will include, subject to the advice of the Attorney General:
- a power for the coroner to seek directions from the High Court on a point of law in relation to the performance of their functions:
- a power for the coroner to direct a hospital or other health institution to make medical records of the deceased person available, for the purposes of a post mortem examination.
- a power for the Minister to make regulations on the proper storage and disposal of any material removed for the purposes of a post mortem examination, including return to a family member for disposal where requested and appropriate, and
- a statutory provision for a coroner to inquire into a stillbirth where there is cause for concern, for example, arising from matters raised by the bereaved parents.
Let me thank you, Mr. President and other coroners, for the Society’s very significant ongoing contribution to the development of the Bill, in your many contacts and meetings with my officials. That expert contribution is most valuable and is much appreciated. I know this close cooperation will continue.
It is my firm intention to move the Coroners (Amendment) Bill as early as possible in the new parliamentary session, so that, with the co-operation of all sides, we can facilitate its swift passage through the Houses of the Oireachtas.
Many of the provisions contained in this Bill have been developed from the review by my Department, in cooperation with the Coroners Society, of similar proposals in the Coroners Bill 2007, which proposed a comprehensive reform of coronial law to strengthen and modernise the legal powers available to coroners in the reporting, investigation and inquest of death.
That Bill also included a major administrative restructuring of the coroner system. In the light of the major challenges then confronting public finances, the 2007 Bill was not progressed following Second Stage in the Seanad. However, the optimum organisation of the coroner service must continue to be examined. Further elements of the existing law and structures will require significant improvement.
My Department remains committed to this reform process. We are all conscious that the Coroners Act of 1962 may no longer best equip the coroner with the appropriate support and organisation measures to conduct the death investigation.
Let me turn from matters legislative to matters more mundane, but important. The Coroners Society in its contacts with my Department and at our meeting in November 2017 raised the issue of a review of the current remuneration for the coroner. The current provisions date from 2002 with some minimal updating. The fees were subject to an 8% cut under the provisions of the Financial Emergency Measures in the Public Interest Act in 2009.
I am pleased to tell you that I have instructed my officials to initiate a review of the salaries paid to coroners. Such a review is provided for in section 9 of the 1962 Coroners Act. I would wish the Society to engage with my officials to determine how best we might carry out the review. There will also have to be consultation with the Minister for Housing and Local Government.
I expect that such a review would consider the issues of the restoration of the so-called FEMPI reductions and the calculation of appropriate retainers paid in respect of each coroner district.
Among us here this evening, is the State Pathologist, Dr. Marie Cassidy. As most of you know, Marie is retiring shortly. I hope to say a few words at Marie’s retirement presentation later this month. However, as this will be her last attendance at the Coroners’ Society dinner, at least as State Pathologist, I know the Society will join with me in wishing Marie a long and happy retirement.
I want to conclude my remarks this evening by congratulating Eugene O’Connor on his successful term of office as President over the last 2 years. I wish to thank him for his expert counsel throughout consultations on legislative reform, and for the always professional and pleasant manner in which he has conducted the Society’s business with my Department.
Let me offer my best wishes to the incoming President of the Society, Dr. Mary Flanagan, the coroner for Cavan and South Monaghan, for her term of office. It looks like she will lead coroners through some interesting times.and I wish her every success.