Minister Flanagan announces further commencement of provisions of the Coroners (Amendment) Act 2019

 

19 January 2020

The Minister for Justice and Equality, Charlie Flanagan, announced today the commencement of further important provisions of the Coroners (Amendment) Act 2019, which was signed into law on 23 July 2019.

This Act amends the existing Principal Act (the Coroners Act 1962) to significantly clarify, strengthen and modernise the powers available to coroners in the reporting, investigation and inquest of deaths.

The Minister said:

“The Coroners (Amendment) Act 2019 is a very important reforming Act and was an important legislative priority for me personally, and for my colleagues in Government. I commenced most of the provisions of the Act on 16 September 2019. I am very pleased that today, I am able to bring all bar one of the Act’s remaining provisions into effect. This Act broadens the scope of enquiries at inquest and clarifies 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 total number of deaths in the State in 2018 was 31,116. In that year 17,528 deaths were reported to coroners and inquiry completed which represented 56% of all death in the State. Of those 17,528 cases in 2018, post-mortem examinations were directed in 5,467 with no further action required in 3,375 of the cases and the remaining 2,092 cases proceeded to inquest.

In total, coroners dealt with 17,528 cases in 2018, which represented 56% of all deaths.

The sections of the Act commenced today concern the following:

Section 21: Post-mortem examinations and related matters.

Section 23: Amendment of section 37 of the Principal Act (witnesses at inquest).

Section 24: Power with respect to the taking of evidence, etc. at inquest

Section 25: Taking of evidence from person about to leave State.

Section 36: Directions of the High Court.

Section 39(d): Repeal of sections 19 and 52 of the Coroners Act 1962 (relating to post-mortem examination arrangements).

 

These provisions could not be commenced earlier, as the necessary court rules had to be put in place before they could take effect.

The commencement of section 21 will provide for a revised and modern approach to the direction, conduct, obtaining of necessary medical records and reporting of post-mortem examinations required to be made by the coroner under the legislation. This concerns a revised section 33 of the Principal Act and five new sections 33A to 33E.

The Minister commented: 

“The changes in regard to post-mortem examinations directed by the coroner represent a significant modernisation of the provisions in the 1962 Act. They will provide certainty to all concerned in the process and will reassure the next of kin of the deceased”.

Section 23 will strengthen coroners’ powers to compel the attendance of witnesses at inquests. Where a person might not comply without reasonable excuse, the coroner can apply to the High Court to compel attendance.

Section 24 also strengthens the coroner’s powers with regard to the production of documents or other evidence at an inquest. Should a person not comply without reasonable excuse, the coroner can apply to the High Court to compel production of the relevant evidence.

The commencement of section 36 will allow the coroner to seek the direction of the High Court on a point of law.

The Minister concluded:

“The commencement of section 36 is a significant advance. It will allow coroners for the first time a procedure to seek the directions of the High Court on any doubtful or difficult point of law arising from the performance of their functions under the Act. As I noted during the passage of the Act through the Oireachtas issues might, for example, include the procedural rights of interested parties at inquest or the interpretation of the European Convention of Human Rights on a new or difficult issue. It is a special provision, to be used at the discretion of the coroner.

I do not expect that it will need to be used frequently, but I do expect that it will be used judiciously by coroners from time to time. As such, it will greatly assist in clarifying and developing our coronial law”.

The Minister hopes to be in a position to commence the final remaining provision of the Act – section 8 concerning administrative arrangements for the Dublin coroner’s district – in the near future.

ENDS…/

 

Note to Editors

The Coroners (Amendment) Act 2019 was signed into law by the Presidential Commission on 23 July, 2019. The Act contains a number of key provisions to strengthen the effectiveness of the coroner’s inquest, and improve compliance with our obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights.

They include:  

On 16 September, 2019, the Minister commenced these and most other provisions of the Act by the Coroners (Amendment) Act (Commencement) Order 2019 S.I. No. 448 of 2019.

This Commencement Order made today, 16 January, 2019, provides for the commencement of the following sections of the Act:

Section 21: Post-mortem examinations and related matters.

Section 23: Amendment of section 37 of the Principal Act (witnesses at inquest).

Section 24: Power with respect to the taking of evidence, etc. at inquest 

Section 25: Taking of evidence from person about to leave State. 

Section 36: Directions of the High Court (the new case stated procedure).

Section 39(d): Repeal of sections 19 and 52 of the Coroners Act 1962 (relating to post-mortem examination arrangements).

 

Post-mortem examinations and related matters

Section 21 replaces section 33 of the Principal Act with a new section 33 and inserts new sections 33A – 33E. The replaced section 33 provides for a post-mortem examination at the discretion of the coroner, sets out a procedure for arranging a post-mortem examination (via a request by the coroner to the Minister), and states circumstances in which the coroner has a duty to arrange a post-mortem examination. The new sections make detailed and modernised provision regarding post-mortem examinations, as follows.

Discretion to direct post-mortem examination, and conduct of such examinations

New section 33 of the Principal Act provides a discretion for a coroner who is inquiring into the death of a person, to direct a post-mortem examination of the body. It also provides for an updated procedure for arranging a post-mortem examination, and provides for a family member of the deceased person to be informed regarding the post-mortem examination. The coroner is not obliged to hold an inquest into that death, if satisfied by the post-mortem examination report that an inquest is not necessary (unless the death is one where inquest is required under new section 33A of the Principal Act).

Duty to direct post-mortem examination

New section 33A sets out a range of situations in which the coroner has a duty to direct a post-mortem examination. These are cases where the death appears violent or unnatural; or unexpected and from unknown causes; or to have occurred in suspicious circumstances; or to be a death in State custody or detention, a maternal death or late maternal death; or to be a death which may have occurred in circumstances requiring an inquest under another enactment, or which may be due to specified work-related causes.

The coroner must also direct a post-mortem examination if so requested in writing by a member of the Garda Síochána not below the rank of Inspector, a member of the Defence Forces not below the rank of commandant, a duly authorised officer of a statutory body empowered under another enactment to investigate fatal events, or a designated officer of the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission.

Provisions relating to post-mortem examinations directed by coroner

New section 33B provides for a post-mortem examination directed by the coroner to be made by a registered medical practitioner with any appropriate assistance. It continues the current law in precluding a doctor who attended the deceased within 28 days before death from making the post-mortem examination, with one specified exception.

Further post-mortem examination

New section 33C provides for the coroner to direct a further post-mortem examination, if he or she considers that this is required due to new information becoming known, or if the first post-mortem examination was not made properly.

Medical records of deceased person for purposes of post-mortem examination

New section 33D provides for the coroner to direct a hospital or medical practitioner to produce medical records of the deceased person to inform a post mortem examination. Should there be a refusal to comply with that direction; the coroner has a new power to apply to the High Court to compel production of the records and to make any necessary Order, including an Order as to costs.

Report of post-mortem examination to be given to coroner

New section 33E provides for the written report of the post-mortem examination to be provided to the coroner as soon as practicable. A preliminary report may be provided to the coroner in advance. The report shall record any organs or body material retained for further examination.

The coroner is to make the report available if so requested in writing by a member of the Garda Síochána not below the rank of Inspector, a member of the Defence Forces not below the rank of commandant, a duly authorised officer of a statutory body empowered under another enactment to investigate fatal events, or a designated officer of the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission not later than the opening of the inquest (or, if no inquest is held, as soon as practicable).

The coroner is also required to provide a copy of the post-mortem examination report to a family member, if so requested, unless so doing may prejudice possible, or pending, criminal proceedings in relation to the death.

Amendment of section 37 of the Principal Act (Non-attendance of jurors and witnesses)

Section 23 amends and strengthens section 37 of the Principal Act, which provides for offences where a person fails to attend an inquest in response to a jury summons or a witness summons. It provides in each case that the failure to attend must be without reasonable excuse. It also inserts a new subsection, to provide that where a witness so fails to attend an inquest, the High Court may (on application by the coroner) order the witness to attend and may make such other order, including an order as to costs, as the Court considers necessary and just to enable the order to have full effect.

Power with respect to taking of evidence, etc., at inquest

Section 24 amends section 38 of the Principal Act to provide for increased powers for a coroner in relation to the taking of evidence at an inquest, including a power to direct any person to produce documents or things necessary for the proper conduct of the inquest, and to direct a witness to answer questions. Where a person fails or refuses without reasonable excuse to comply with such a direction, the coroner may apply to the High Court for an order compelling the person to comply with the direction. It shall be an offence for a person to knowingly give false or misleading evidence at an inquest. A witness at an inquest shall be entitled to the same immunities and privileges as if he or she were a witness before the High Court.

Section 25 – Taking of evidence from person about to leave State

Section 25 inserts a new section 38A in the Principal Act to provide that a coroner may direct that evidence be taken from a person, or documents or things produced by a person, before the inquest, if the person concerned is likely to be absent from the State during the inquest itself.

Section 36 – Directions of High Court

New section 36 inserts a new section 62 in the Principal Act providing, for the first time, a  power for the coroner to use  “case stated” procedure to apply to the High Court for directions on a point of law regarding the performance of the coroner’s functions under the Act in relation to a death.

Section 39 – Repeals

Section 39 is a standard provision, and lists those provisions of the Principal Act, which are repealed. In this instance, the commencement of section 39 (d) repeals sections 19 and 52 of the Principal Act concerning post-mortem examinations.