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.”