Proposed changes under the Coroners Bill 2007 could have a significant impact on medical practitioners, especially in relation to MRSA.

WHAT IS AN INQUEST?  

An Inquest is an investigation, usually carried out in public either by a Coroner sitting alone or, in certain cases (for example where a death is caused by a road traffic accident), with a jury. The Coroner will consider the facts and reach a verdict on the cause of death. Witnesses may be called but only by the Coroner himself and not by the various parties. The purpose of the Inquest, under the current legislation, is to ascertain the proximate medical cause of death. The Coroner is solely concerned with establishing the cause of death and the Coroner cannot make any finding of guilt or liability. The Coroner is not obliged under the current Act to provide a written judgement or report. However, a copy of the post-mortem report, any written submissions and the verdict must be retained and made available to the public after the Inquest has been concluded.  

WHAT IS THE ROLE OF THE CORONER AND THE CORONER’S COURT?  

The Coroner is required by law (under the Coroners Act 1962) to investigate all deaths reported to him. If a death has been violent, unnatural or sudden and in circumstances where the cause is unknown, and cannot be determined by post-mortem, the Coroner will hold an Inquest.  

WHAT FINDINGS CAN THE CORONER MAKE?  

The Coroner can make the following verdicts at an Inquest:  

  • Accidental death
  • Misadventure
  • Open Verdict
  • Suicide
  • Natural causes
  • Unlawful killing  

WHAT INVOLVEMENT CAN THE DECEASED’S FAMILY HAVE IN THE INQUEST?  

Any person who wishes to testify at an Inquest, may indicate his desire to give evidence before the Inquest, and will be heard where the Coroner believes the evidence is relevant to the inquiry. In addition to this, the Coroner will permit examination of witnesses by an interested party, which includes the family or next-of-kin of the deceased. This would usually arise in cases where the circumstances surrounding death are not clear.

WHAT IS THE ROLE OF A DOCTOR ATTENDING AN INQUEST?  

A doctor who was involved in the treatment of the patient prior to their demise may be required to prepare a factual report for the Coroner and may be required to give evidence at an Inquest. Refusal to attend at the Coroner’s Court as a witness is contempt of Court. The doctor’s role at the Inquest is to assist the Coroner in determining the cause of death.  

WHAT CHANGES ARE PROPOSED IN THE CORONERS BILL 2007?  

The 2007 Bill is currently at the second stage in the Seanad. If this bill becomes law it will widen the scope of an Inquest from simply investigating the proximal cause of death to establishing in what circumstances the deceased died. The Coroner’s Bill 2007 defines the purpose of an Inquest as being to determine the identity of the deceased, when he died, where he died and how he died.  

The Coroner’s Bill 2007 has added deaths relating to MRSA to the list of types of death which must be reported to the Coroner. The Bill will also require the Coroner to keep the family of the deceased informed in relation to the progress of the investigation and continue to liaise with them until the investigation is concluded. Under the Coroner’s bill, the Coroner is still not permitted to make any finding of liability or apportionment blame. However, he may make general recommendations that he thinks may minimise the recurrence of similar tragedies.  

Interestingly, if a recommendation is made by the Coroner to a public body, local authority or Government department, to adopt a certain course of action, a response must be provided in writing to the Coroner within six months, reporting what measures have been taken by the relevant party on foot of the Coroner’s recommendation.