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Coroner powers modernised as amended Act commences
Coroner's Court in Store Street, Dublin 1 Pic: Shutterstock

20 Jan 2020 / legislation Print

Coroner powers modernised as amended act commences

Provisions of the Coroners (Amendment) Act 2019, which was signed into law on 23 July last year, have now been commenced.

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

Justice minister Charlie Flanagan said this is an important reforming Act and a legislative priority.

“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.

Of these, 12,061 deaths were reported to coroners (39%).

Of the deaths reported to coroners, 3,375 post-mortem examinations were directed, with no further action required. A further 2,092 deaths required a post-mortem examination and an inquest.

17,528 cases in 2018

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

The sections of the act commenced yesterdat 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 at inquest,
  • Section 25: Taking of evidence from person about to leave the 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 before now 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 modernised approach to the "direction, conduct, obtaining of necessary medical records" and to the reporting of post-mortem examinations 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.

Next of kin

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. The coroner can now apply to the High Court to compel production of the relevant evidence.

Direction

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

“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,” the minister said.

Rights

“As I noted during the passage of the Act through the Oireachtas issues might, for example, include the procedural rights of interested parties at an 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.”

The minister said he did not expect this provision to be used frequently but that it will be used judiciously by coroners from time to time.

The last remaining provision of the Act – section 8 concerning administrative arrangements for the Dublin coroner’s district – is expected to be commenced in the near future.

Compliance

The Coroners (Amendment) Act 2019 improves compliance with obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights.

These include:  

  • Clarifying that the purpose of the inquest goes beyond establishing the medical cause of death, to establishing the circumstances in which death took place (though it will remain the position that an inquest does not make any finding of civil or criminal liability),
  • Express requirements for mandatory reporting and inquest in all maternal and late maternal deaths,
  • Express requirements for mandatory reporting and inquest of a death occurring in a range of situations which constitute State custody or detention,
  • Mandatory reporting to a coroner of all stillbirths, intrapartum deaths and infant deaths and, for the first time, a statutory basis for the coroner to enquire into a stillbirth where there is cause for concern (this normally arises from matters raised by the bereaved parents),
  • It is now an offence for a responsible person not to report a mandatory reportable death to the coroner,
  • Specific provisions on notice of an inquest to be provided to family members of the deceased person. 

The 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.

Updated procedure

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 the inquest is required under new section 33A of the Principal Act).

The new section 33A sets out a range of situations in which the coroner has a duty to direct a post-mortem examination.

Violent death

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.

Medic

Section 33B also 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.

The 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 becomingknown, or if the first post-mortem examination was not made properly.

Hospital

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.

  • 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 also records 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).

Family member

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

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, without reasonable excuse. 

Fails to attend

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.

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.

Evidence

Section 25 provides that a coroner may direct that evidence be taken from a person before the inquest, if the person concerned is likely to be absent from the State during the inquest itself.

Section 36 provides a power for the coroner to use a “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 lists those provisions of the Principal Act which are repealed.

 

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