The Law Society of Ireland is the professional body for 6,800 solicitors in Ireland. Its headquarters are at Blackhall Place, Dublin 7.
Approximately 5,000 solicitors registered on the roll in Ireland take out practising certificates each year, while another 700 solicitors work in the public and corporate sector.
The Law Society welcomes
the appointment of the Working Group to review the Coroner service in this
jurisdiction by the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform.
It is happy to make this submission to the Group.
There is a dearth of textbooks in Ireland on the role of Coroners. Apart from the “Handbook for Coroners in the Republic of Ireland” published by Patrick O’Connor, the Coroner for Mayo East, in March 1997, no other book or publication has been written in this country. It is understood that Dr. Brian Farrell, the Dublin City Coroner, is in the course of completing a book for Coroners in Ireland. In the absence of textbooks, Coroners in this jurisdiction must rely on publications and books from other jurisdictions particularly those written, printed and published in England.
While there are a considerable number of statutes which affect Coroners and have a bearing on their work (see Appendix A for a list of some of these), the substantive law in Ireland governing the functions of a Coroner is contained in the Coroners Act 1962. It is entitled “An Act to amend and consolidate the law relating to Coroners and Coroners’ Inquests”.
In the past decade a considerable amount of case law has been developed in the High and Supreme Courts in this jurisdiction where Coroners’ decisions have been subject to review. (See Appendix B for a list of some of these cases).
There is a lack of relevant,
up-to-date information on which to base judgements and decisions on the
review of the Coroners area. There is a need for more information
from statistics and research. Some work has been done on the question
of suicide by the Irish Association of Suicidology. This body continues
its work in both jurisdictions on this island.
THE CORONER AS A JUDICIAL PERSON
The role of the Coroner is judicial in nature. He presides over inquests. At the conclusion of the inquest he then addresses the jury, if there is one, and thereafter records its verdict. His rights, duties and obligations are set out in the Coroners Act. The Coroner’s investigation is inquisitorial.
The Coroner operates in the public interest in a judicial capacity co-ordinating the medico-legal investigations into sudden deaths reported to him. The principal responsibility of the Coroner is to establish the identity of the person in relation to whose death is reported to him and, where an inquest has been held, to ascertain how, when and where the death occurred. While the holding of inquests is the public arena in which the Coroner is most often seen to conduct his work, it is overshadowed by work done by the Coroner in certifying the medical cause of death where no inquests are required.
The changed economic and social environment in Ireland has increased the number of reported sudden deaths and as a consequence the work of the Coroner has increased significantly. Working with an increasingly educated and aware public, Coroners find their actions are increasingly subject to legal, judicial and public scrutiny.
While the vast amount of
work done by Coroners relates to persons who have died suddenly, the jurisdiction
of a Coroner in relation to treasure troves as set out in Section 49 of
the Coroners Act is also of relevance, particularly in light of the judgment
in Webb -v- Ireland and the Attorney General – 1988 IR 353.
PROFESSIONAL QUALIFICATIONS OF CORONERS
Section 14 (1) of the Coroners Act states that - “no person shall be appointed to be a coroner or a deputy coroner unless he is a practising barrister of at least five years’ standing, or a practising solicitor of at least five years’ standing, or a registered medical practitioner who has been registered, other than provisionally or temporarily, under the Medical Practitioners Acts 1927 to 1961, in the Register of Medical Practitioners for Ireland, or who has been entitled to be so registered, for at least five years”.
Section 14(2) of the Coroners Act states that -“in reckoning the number of years’ standing of a barrister who during a previous period was a solicitor, or of a solicitor who during a previous period was a barrister, such period shall be taken into account”.
The MacHale report for the Coroners Association of Ireland (1995) states that, on average, Coroners have 34 years’ post-qualification experience as solicitors or doctors, with an average of 16 years experience in the position as Coroner.
The Minister for Justice has determined in circular no LA-28-2-76 that the qualification as to age, health and character for appointment to the position of Coroner shall be as follows:-
(i) Age: Candidates must be not less than 30 years of age on the first day of the month on which the latest date for receiving application forms for the office for which they are candidates occurs;
(ii) Health: Candidates must be free from any defect or disease which would render them unsuitable to hold the office and be in a state of health such as would indicate a reasonable prospect of ability to render regular and efficient service;
(iii) Character: Candidates must be of good character.
Interviews are carried out
by the Local Appointments Commission. On appointment, a Coroner is governed
by rules of conduct for officers of local authorities. Local Authorities
in the area for which the Coroner is appointed are responsible for his
remuneration though the Minister for Justice retains overall control of
THE CORONERS ACT, 1962
The Coroners Act is stylistically
simple legislation. It has served its purpose well. However,
changes in the common law as a result of Court decisions and other statutory
intervention, determine that the Act should be amended and then consolidated.
The Coroners Act 1962 should be amended and consolidated to provide inter alia for the following:-
(i) Appointment of Coroners
All Coroners should be either a solicitor or barrister of at least ten years’ standing.
The requirement, which may be unconstitutional, that a Coroner be of at least 30 years of age should be removed.
The requirement for juries should be removed.
(iii) Education and Training
On appointment a Coroner should undergo training and education in the role of a Coroner. Coroners should be required to attend regular mandatory training and information courses.
At present there are no rules governing the conduct of an inquest. While constitutional principles of fair procedures apply there should be a set of rules drafted for Coroners to follow upon which inquests are conducted.
The Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform should be designated as the Minister solely responsible for the Coroners’ service as a whole.
At the present time the Minister
for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, the Minister for the Environment
and the Minister for Health and Children all have roles in relation to
Formal recognition should
be given to the Coroners Association which is the representative body for
coroners. This Association was originally founded in 1870.
It was relatively inactive for a number of years, though it was re-established
in this decade. Its permanent secretariat is Sean MacHale & Associates
in Dublin. The Association is now run in a professional manner with
officers elected annually.
A Coroner should:-
(i) be fully indemnified by the State in respect of damages and legal costs that may arise from all legal proceedings brought against him in his role as Coroner;
(ii) have access to legal advice from the State’s legal advisers in respect of any problem that may arise in the carrying out of his functions as Coroner;
(iii) be entitled to absolute
privilege in regard to any statement or representation made or uttered
by him in his capacity as Coroner.
A Coroner should be provided with the services of a designated officer, not below the rank of Garda Sergeant, who should be responsible for the day to day investigative and administration functions delegated to him by the Coroner, including, inter alia:-
(i) the viewing of the deceased’s body, setting up post mortem examinations etc;
(ii) identifying the deceased to medical practitioners;
(iii) serving witness and jury summonses, and ensuring their attendance at the inquests;
(iv) notifying the next-of-kin of death, the necessity to hold a post mortem examination and the date and place of inquests;
(v) supervising the preparation of statements of witnesses and collating a book of depositions for inquests;
(vi) presentation of documents
and exhibits at inquests;
(vii) organising the availability of venues for inquests.
Sufficient resources should
be allocated to improve the forensic services, such as to reduce the delays
in obtaining post mortem reports and analysis certificates.
The Minister should allocate sufficient resources to modernise and improve the Coroners’ service to include the following:-
(i) the provision of a computer package containing all Coroners’ forms, case recording and annual returns;
(ii) legislation and regulations and a digest of case law;
(iii) International protocols (especially in relation to the transport of bodies from State to State);
(iv) up-to-date text books on Coroners’ Practice;
(v) up-to-date Journals;
(vi) automatic access to
the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform Library and to the University
SECRETARIAL AND OTHER SERVICES
(i) a secretary should be made available in long and complicated inquests;
(ii) a stenographer should
be available in appropriate inquests.
ADDITIONAL POWERS FOR CORONERS
Empower a Coroner to:-
(i) order the preservation of documents, e.g. witness statements, computer records, photographs, tapes, etc;
(ii) order the discovery of documents;
(iii) order that witness statements and other records produced at inquests are the property of the Coroner;
(iv) order the issue of a Subpoena duces tecum;
(v) order the closing and
sealing of a coffin in case of death from AIDS, MRSI, or other infectious
All Pathologists employed
by Health Boards should have an obligation to provide post mortem reports
Every Health Board should
have a list of bereavement counsellors to whom Coroners may refer members
of the Public.
SECTION 30 OF THE ACT
In light of the case of Greene
v McLoughlin, Section 30 of the Act should be clarified.
The views of the Health Boards and Voluntary Organisations such as the Society of St Vincent De Paul, the Samaritans, the Irish Association of Suicidology, Victim Support, and other similar organisations should be canvassed before a new statute and/or amending legislation is introduced.
The work in drafting new,
amending and consolidating legislation, updating and revising the various
statutory instruments affecting Coroners, and the preparation of a digest
of cases in this jurisdiction is vitally important and should be entrusted
to a specifically designated task force with adequate and proper research
and back-up facilities.
Insofar as the Law Society of Ireland can assist the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform and the Working Group on the Review of the Coroners’ service, it will do so.
List of some of the Statutes affecting the office of Coroner
43 & 44 Vic., C.13 Births and Deaths Registration Act (Ireland), 1880
Vic C.37 General Prisons (Ireland) Act, 1877
61 & 62 Vic., C.37 Local Government (Ireland) Act, 1898
No.32 of 1926 Local Authorities (Officers and Employees) Act, 1926
No.1 (Private) of 1995 Local
Government Provisional Orders Confirmation
No.10 of 1995 Factories Act, 1955
No.9 of 1962 Coroners Act, 1962
No.7 of 1965 Mines and Quarries Act, 1965
No.10 of 1972 Dangerous Substances Act, 1972
No.4 of 1976 Juries Act, 1976
No.7 of 1989 Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Act, 1989
No.11 of 1993 Criminal Law (Suicide) Act, 1993
No.1 of 1994 Still Births Registration Act, 1994
Selected Court decisions
Maellisa Costello v Patrick Bofin S.C. – 1980 U.R.
The State (at the prosecution of Angela McKeown) v Dr Thomas E Scully H.C. - 1985 U.R.
Webb v Ireland and the Attorney General – 1988 I.R. 353
Davitt v Minister for Justice – H.C. 1989 U.R.
Thomas Francis Greene v Kieran McLoughlin – S.C. 1995 U.R.
Farrell v Ireland and the
Attorney General HC – 1995 U.R. and S.C. 1996 U.R.
U.R. – unreported