The Minister for Justice and Equality, Charlie Flanagan, last week published the Coroners (Amendment) Bill 2018 (the “Bill”). This Bill seeks to significantly clarify, strengthen and modernise the law on the reporting of deaths to coroners. The Bill also extends coroner’s powers to investigate and inquest such deaths. The Bill, if enacted, will amend the existing legislation, the Coroners Act 1962. Changes to the legislation governing the coroner system have long been proposed, including in a Coroners Bill 2007, but have never been enacted.
Commenting on the Bill, the Minister said that it will “allow a wider scope for inquiry where necessary at inquests, clarifying that they are not limited to establishing the medical cause of death, and seek to establish the circumstances in which the death occurred.” Further, the Minister indicated that the Bill would enhance compliance with Ireland’s obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights.
While it will remain the case that coroners will not have any power to make a finding of civil or criminal liability, the Bill contains a number of key provisions that are aimed at increasing the effectiveness of the coroner’s inquest. These key provisions include:
- Statutory confirmation that the purpose of the inquest goes beyond establishing the medical cause of death, to establishing the circumstances in which death took place.
- Mandatory reporting to a coroner, post mortem and inquest in all cases of maternal death and late maternal death. However, the Bill provides an exemption from this mandatory inquest, at the discretion of the coroner, if, after consulting with the bereaved family, the coroner is satisfied that the death was a natural one and there are no matters of concern requiring inquest. The coroner must have regard to the views of a family member of the deceased, in writing, as to whether the death was a natural one.
- Extension of the scheme of legal aid for family members to cases of maternal death and late maternal death.
- Mandatory reporting to a coroner of all stillbirths, intra-partum deaths and perinatal deaths. However the Bill does not include a provision for mandatory post-mortem or inquest in such cases.
- Stronger coroner’s powers to summon witnesses to an inquest, and to direct a witness to produce documents and evidence, or answer questions and the introduction of penalties for witnesses who fail to cooperate.
- 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.
- Express requirements for mandatory reporting, post-mortem examination and inquest of a death occurring in a range of specified situations which constitute State custody or detention.
- Provisions for a coroner to seek advice and assistance from an expert.
- Greater clarity and transparency in the mandatory reporting of certain types of deaths, including a detailed list of specific examples of mandatory reportable deaths. It will be an offence for a responsible person, not to report a mandatory reportable death to the coroner.
- Specific provisions in respect of the provision of notice of an inquest to be provided to family members of the deceased person, and regarding information and access to any report of a post-mortem examination.
The Government has also agreed to priority drafting of some further amendments to the Bill, which the Minister indicated that he intends to introduce at Committee Stage. These further amendments (subject to the advice of the Attorney General) include:
- provision for a coroner to seek direction from the High Court on a point of law;
- power for coroners to direct hospital or healthcare institutions to make medical records of deceased persons available for the purposes of post-mortem examinations; and,
- a statutory basis for coroners to inquire into cases of stillbirth where concerns are raised.
The Minister indicated that he intends to move the Bill as early as possible in the new parliamentary session, with a view to facilitating the Bill’s “swift passage through the Houses of the Oireachtas.”
The Bill can be accessed here.