The long awaited Coroners (Amendment) Bill 2018 (hereinafter known as “the Bill”) was passed by Oireachtas (Final Stage) on 3 July 2019. The Bill aims to modernise and significantly clarify and strengthen the law relating to the reporting of deaths by introducing a number of key legislative changes to the Coroners Act 1962 as a result of public unease regarding high profile cases.

Schedule of Deaths reportable to the Coroner Prior to the Bill, only certain deaths were required to be immediately reported to the Coroner. The Bill now sets out a detailed schedule provides clarity on reportable deaths, although not every reported death will result in a post mortem examination or inquest taking place. The Bill contains express requirements for mandatory reporting of:

  • Any death by suicide or assisted suicide;
  • Any maternal death or late maternal death;
  • In the case of an infant death, any death caused wholly or partially by maternal drug addiction;
  • Any death of a stillborn child, death intrapartum or infant death;
  • Any death where deceased person is unidentified;
  • A death caused wholly or partially by a cut or contusion;
  • Any death caused wholly or partially by an incident occurring on a railway or arising on a train, aircraft, ship or other vessel;
  • Any death caused wholly or partially by a notifiable disease, adverse reaction to any drug, infection caused by previously contaminated blood product, or due to a prion disease;
  • Any death occurring in an institution for the care and treatment of persons with a physical or mental disability.

Duty to Hold an Inquest The Coroner is currently obliged to hold an inquest where he or she is of the opinion that the death may have occurred in a violent or unnatural manner, or “suddenly and from unknown causes”, the Bill now amends that to read deaths “unexpected and from unknown causes”.

This results in a standardised approach to inquests if the deceased was in State custody or detention; or in circumstances where the death is a maternal death or late maternal death. Maternal death is defined in the Bill as a

“death of a woman while pregnant or within 42 days of the end of pregnancy from any cause related to or aggravated by the pregnancy or its management…”.

Late maternal death is defined as a

“death occurring more than 42 days and less than 365 days after the end of pregnancy from any cause related to or aggravated by the pregnancy or its management…”.;

This will lead to increased transparency about the incidence and causes of all maternal deaths and all deaths in state custody as a matter of standard practice, and will ensure timely provision of information to bereaved families.

Mandatory Reporting Obligations Part IIA of the Bill sets out comprehensively the various persons who are under a duty to report a mandatory reportable death to the Coroner. This is a non-exhaustive list which includes medical practitioners, nurses and paramedics treating the deceased before death. If the reportable death concerned is that of a stillborn child or a death intrapartum, it includes any medical practitioner, nurse or midwife who had responsibility for, or involvement in the treatment of care of the woman concerned in the period immediately before or after the delivery of the stillborn child, or who was present at the delivery.

Undertakers and occupiers of a house or dwelling where the deceased was residing at the time of their death are also included, unless reported to An Garda Síochána. The section also updates the penalties for failing to report a reportable death.

Other notable provisions under the Bill The Coroner can direct the production of records from the head of hospital, doctor or pathologist involved and from a nurse, midwife, paramedic or advanced paramedic. This will ensure situations such as home births or alternative medical practitioners are covered. If a recipient refuses or fails to comply, the Coroner may apply to the High Court, which can order the recipient to comply.

The Coroner can enter any premises to inspect, copy, take extracts from or seize documents and to compel witnesses to attend or answer questions at an inquest.

The Coroner can apply to the High Court for directions on a point of law regarding the performance of his or her functions under the Act. Coroners currently rely on judicial review proceedings, and this will provide a legal avenue for determining difficult questions of law.

The Coroner can seek and obtain advice or assistance from an expert in respect of a matter for the purposes of his or her inquiry.

Passage of the Bill The Bill is currently being presented to the President for signature. It is expected to be signed into law this week.

The Bill’s greater clarity will be welcomed by the Public, Health Professionals and Providers and Legal Practitioners.