Civil Law (Presumption of Death) Bill 2016 [Seanad]: Second Stage

I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

The Bill before the House is the Civil Law (Presumption of Death) Bill 2018 which started life as a Private Member’s Bill in Seanad Éireann and which passed all Stages in that House in June of last year. I hope it can be enacted speedily given the overwhelmingly positive support which it has attracted to date.

Prior to outlining the content of the Bill, I would like to put on record my acknowledgement of the work of Senators Colm Burke, Marie Louise O’Donnell and Lynn Ruane in championing the need for reform in this area and in seeking to advance the proposals which were first put forward by the Law Reform Commission in 2013. The Government decided not to oppose the Bill, initially presented as the Civil Law (Missing Persons) Bill 2016, when it was introduced in the Seanad but, rather, to work with Senator Colm Burke and his fellow Senators to bring forward a number of amendments to the Bill which were acknowledged as being necessary and to which I will return later.

I am of course aware that Deputies Jonathan O’Brien and Pearse Doherty have also tabled a Bill dealing with these matters and I also commend them for their work.

The situation which the Bill seeks to address is, fortunately, not one which the vast majority of people will ever have to encounter. As a society, we can do little to lessen the sense of loss which occurs when a loved one goes missing. However, as legislators, we have the capacity to intervene in order to ease some of the more practical problems which confront those who are left behind. The Government is very conscious of the fact that the current provisions in Irish law which relate to missing persons are of limited use to those who are left behind. The rebuttable presumption at common law that enables a missing person to be presumed dead if missing for more than seven years is clearly inadequate given the need to deal in a more immediate way with the myriad consequences which may arise when a person goes missing and is in all likelihood dead. It is true that the High Court may make a declaration of presumed death prior to the passage of seven years if there is sufficient circumstantial evidence to justify such a finding. However, such a finding will not result in the missing person’s death being registered on the Register of Deaths, and consequently no death certificate can be issued. Furthermore, any marriage or civil partnership involving the missing person is not ended as a consequence of the declaration of presumed death.

The provisions of the Coroner’s Act 1962 which allow the Minister for Justice and Equality to direct a coroner to hold an inquest where a death has occurred and the body has been destroyed or is irrecoverable are also insufficient in this context, given that there is a geographic restriction that requires the belief of the coroner that a death has occurred in or near his or her district for the section to be effective.

Notwithstanding current limitations, the Government is also conscious that, in reforming this area of the law, there is a need for careful balancing between the need, on the one hand, to address the practical problems which face those left behind when a person goes missing and the need, on the other, to acknowledge the significant legal implications of declaring a missing person dead.

The Bill, as originally presented, had a dual focus. It proposed to deal with the civil law status of missing persons by putting in place a statutory framework to provide for the making of a presumption of death order in respect of two categories of missing persons. The first category was where the circumstances of the disappearance indicated that death was virtually certain. The second category was where both the circumstances and the length of the disappearance indicated that it was highly probable that the missing person had died and would not return, for example, where the disappearance occurred in dangerous circumstances in which loss of life might be presumed. It also had the objective of establishing a regime to allow an interim manager to be appointed to manage the missing person’s estate.

In considering the Bill as presented the Government found that there were difficulties attendant on this dual focus in that it gave rise to a certain blurring of the boundaries between those who are missing and who are, in all probability dead, and those who are missing but still alive. The legal issues attaching to the resolution of the difficulties presented by these two scenarios are not identical and, ideally, should not be conflated. It was in that context that the Government proposed a number of amendments to the Bill which were endorsed by Seanad Éireann, and which I will now outline.

The most significant amendments related to the scope of the Bill. As I already said, the Bill as presented had a dual focus relating to status matters on the one hand and to the interim management of the missing person’s property on the other. The view was taken that the interim management issues were far more complex than those associated with the presumption of death issue in isolation and would require a regime more onerous in terms of oversight than originally proposed. In particular, the proposal that an application for an interim management order might be made once a person had been missing for 90 days gave rise to real concern that a person who had merely gone missing, for whatever reason, but who was not dead, could return to find that their interests had been severely and adversely affected. It was considered that, in the interests of granting some relief to the relatives of those who go missing, the focus of the Bill should, at least for now, be on the issues relating to status. In consequence, all references to matters connected with the interim management of property were deleted. Both the Long Title and the Short Title reflect these changes.

A further substantive amendment in the scope area concerned the definition of “missing person” which is set out in section 2. As presented, the very broad definition encompassed all missing persons, including those stepping out of their lives for whatever reason but who subsequently return to that life. The revised definition focuses on a narrower target group of persons whose death is either virtually certain or is highly probable. The distinction between a death which is virtually certain and one which is highly probable allows for a differentiation in the time period after which an application can be made for a presumption of death order and gives the courts a degree of certainty that the person concerned is actually dead. Given the profound legal consequences of such an order, I consider the distinction to be both necessary and appropriate. The Bill in its current form - section 5 - reflects the recommendations of the Council of Europe in this regard.

There is no minimum waiting period where the missing person's death can be taken as certain but the body cannot be recovered. For those whose death is likely, a minimum waiting period of a year is specified.

Another significant issue, which was addressed during the debate in the Seanad, concerned the effect of a presumption of death order on a marriage or civil partnership involving a missing, presumed dead, person. The policy of the Government is that a presumption of death order should be conclusive insofar as the end of a marriage or civil partnership is concerned. This policy is reflected in section 6 of the Bill. However, it is necessary to address unlikely or even improbable scenarios, which in this case are the implications of the return of a formerly missing person in respect of whom a presumption of death order had been made and who was married or in a civil partnership at the time of the making of that order. The Bill, in section 8, now provides that either the formerly missing person or the person who was left behind can apply to the High Court for a declaration which, if granted, would have the effect of treating the marriage or partnership with a formerly missing person as one where a decree of divorce or a decree of dissolution had been granted. The court is given a broad discretion in relation to modifying or restricting the effect of its order. I must emphasise that any court order would not have the effect of reviving the marriage or partnership, nor would it have any impact on the status of any new marriage or partnership which might exist. However, the provision will allow the parties to effectively plug into existing family law arrangements concerning matters such as maintenance and access. Legal advice received was to the effect that a provision of this nature would make a successful constitutional challenge less likely than the more absolute approach of simply bringing the marriage or partnership to an end without any provision being made to address the consequences of that ending.

Section 4 of the Bill lists those persons who may apply for an order under its provisions. The same list of persons may also apply for a variation order under section 8 along with the missing person in respect of whom a presumption of death order was made. Specific provision is made for a half-brother or a half-sister to be an applicant. This coheres with the provision in the Northern Ireland legislation in relation to applicants who are close relatives in the context of the disappeared, and seems sensible in any event.

Explicit reference to a "creditor" as an applicant has been deleted. By way of background, in none of the legislation in comparable jurisdictions, including England and Wales, Northern Ireland and New Zealand, is there an explicit reference to a "creditor" as an applicant and I have formed the view that such a reference might be misinterpreted. Deletion of the reference to creditor does not, of course, preclude a creditor who feels he or she can demonstrate a sufficient interest in the matter from making an application for an order if the creditor can demonstrate that he or she has a sufficient interest. Provision has also now been made in section 9 for all affected parties to be put on notice as to the making of applications for presumption of death orders or variation orders in order to avoid any injustice which might ensue if an application were to be made and a presumption of death order or a variation order granted in the absence of such parties.

A number of amendments were also made to ensure coherence with the existing arrangements which apply in respect of the registration of life cycle events in accordance with the Civil Registration Act 2004. These amendments were developed in close co-operation with the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection and will facilitate registration of a presumed death in a new register of presumed deaths which is to be established under Part 3 of the Bill. The new register will be part of the suite of civil registers maintained by the Registrar General.

As part of these amendments, an obligation is placed on the court in section 5 to include, in the presumption of death order, the particulars available to it which are necessary for the registration of a presumed death in the new register. Provision is also made for an entry in the register of presumed deaths to be removed or deleted in accordance with the terms of any variation order which may be granted. The amendment also provides for the removal of an entry from the new register where the body of a person for whom an entry has been made on the register has been recovered and an entry has been made in the register of deaths or the record of deaths abroad in respect of that person.

Deputies will have noted that the Bill, as presented, gave a role to both coroners and courts in relation to matters covered by it. The Bill in its current form reflects the view that presumption of death orders should only be made by a court and that other, associated matters should also be dealt with by a court. This is consistent with the position which has been taken in other jurisdictions. Accordingly, I do not envisage any role for coroners in relation to the granting of presumption of death orders and all references to the Coroners Act 1962 or to coroners have been deleted from the Bill.

The final substantive series of amendments which were accepted in Seanad Éireann concern jurisdiction and are set out in section 10. As I said, I am of the view that presumption of death orders should only be made by a court and that other, associated matters should also he dealt with by a court. The Circuit Court will have concurrent jurisdiction with the High Court to deal with applications for presumption of death orders. Once such an order has been made, and the time allowed for appeal has expired, the order has the same effect in law as arises from the registration of a death under section 13 of the Civil Registration Act 2004. This means that a death certificate can be issued which, in turn, will allow for the distribution of the estate and the payment of any life assurance policy which may exist. However, it is proposed that an application for an order varying a presumption of death order can be made to the High Court only. The reason for this is that such cases are likely to be extremely rare and if they occur, they may well give rise to difficult and novel legal issues. The High Court will also have jurisdiction where the Attorney General or a person acting on behalf of the State is the applicant, again because of the likely rarity and complexity of such cases.

The jurisdiction provisions now also take account of the fact that, where land is concerned, the jurisdiction of the Circuit Court is determined by market value rather than rateable valuation. The monetary threshold of that market value is currently set at €3 million. The jurisdiction of the Circuit Court has also been expanded to allow for its exercise by a judge of the circuit in which the applicant ordinarily resides. Previously, jurisdiction was confined to the circuit in which the missing person ordinarily resides. This revised approach is consistent with that taken in other jurisdictions. Finally as regards this matter, a residual jurisdiction criterion based on domicile is also provided to allow the High Court to take jurisdiction in an appropriate case when no other jurisdiction criteria exist. There is also a jurisdictional rule to cater for the disappeared when no other rule is available to the applicant. This might arise where the applicant had no connecting factor, whether by way of residence or domicile, with the State.

I stated at the outset that I hoped to see the Bill enacted by the end of the year. This is a sensitive topic which, fortunately, only affects a very small number of people. However, the size of the affected group does not diminish in any way the pain and emotional distress for those who have to live with the disappearance of a loved one. Their turmoil may well be compounded by the many practical difficulties which have to be faced in the aftermath of the person's disappearance. The Seanad Stages of the Bill have demonstrated that there is a significant degree of support for legislation in this area. We owe it to the small group of people who are affected by the disappearance of a loved one to advance this Bill as quickly as possible to do what we can to alleviate their pain, suffering and distress.

At the core of the Bill is the ability to apply for a presumption of death order when a person goes missing. The protection offered to a missing person who subsequently reappears is the ability to apply for a variation order. The Bill is both balanced and compassionate. I look forward to hearing the views of Deputies on its provisions and commend it to the House.

Before I speak about the provisions of the Bill, I am mindful of the plight of those whose loved ones have gone missing over the years. I think especially of the families of Deirdre Jacob and Trevor Deely in County Kildare, my home county, and the pain, heartbreak and emotional stress they go through every day. Every time we see a poster in a city or town here or abroad featuring photographs of people who are missing and pleas from families seeking information, we think of the hell the family is going through and how difficult it is to maintain some type of normal life. It is important that families who find themselves in this position have a legal opportunity to get certain affairs in order. That is where the Bill comes in.

Fianna Fáil will support the Bill, as we supported a similar Bill in the Seanad in 2013.

The Law Reform Commission has highlighted the need for legislation in this area and we certainly should act on that. I certainly support the Minister's comments in trying to bring this Bill into law before the end of the year.

The purpose of the Civil Law (Presumption of Death) Bill 2016 is to make specific provision in law where a person who is observed to be missing from his or her normal patterns of life, where those who are likely to have heard from a missing person are unaware of his or her whereabouts and where the circumstances of the person missing raise concerns for the person's safety and well-being. It puts in place a statutory framework providing for the making of a presumption of death order in respect of two categories of missing persons. The first is where the circumstances of the disappearance indicate death is virtually certain and the second is where both the circumstances and the length of the disappearance indicate it is highly probable that the missing person has died and will not return.

In 2013, the Law Reform Commission's report on Civil Law Aspects of Missing Persons made 19 recommendations for reform of the law. It also contained a draft civil law (missing persons) Bill to implement the recommendations, so the commission did really good work. In launching the report, the Law Reform Commission pointed out that between 7,000 and 8,000 people are reported missing every year in Ireland, or almost 20 every day, which is almost inconceivable. We know most people turn up within a very short period and less than 1% remain missing for a long time. In the recent years from 2014 to 2017, there was an increase to over 9,000 people per year being reported missing. According to the most recent figures from the Garda missing persons bureau, between 2003 and 2018, there were 125,698 missing person reports and of those, 431 people remain missing. This means 431 families are absolutely devastated, along with neighbours, extended families and communities.

In the context of the violence in Northern Ireland from the 1970s to the late 1990s, there is the inclusion of the "disappeared", a group of 17 people presumed to have been killed but whose bodies have not been found. The Independent Commission for the Location of Victims' Remains established after the 1998 Good Friday Agreement has to date located ten bodies so seven of the disappeared remain missing. We certainly think of their families today. Against this background, in 2009 the Northern Ireland Assembly passed the Presumption of Death Act (Northern Ireland) 2009, which allows relatives to apply to court for a presumption of death order. The Law Reform Commission recommended that as far as possible, the law in this State should mirror the provisions of the 2009 Northern Ireland legislation so that any cases involving the disappeared that might be dealt with in the State could be based on a similar legal framework.

Our current law is primarily based on a long-established rule that there is a presumption that a missing person is alive for up to seven years, with a presumption of death applying after seven years. The current law is limited in that family members may apply to the High Court to have the estate of the missing person administered but this does not allow them to obtain a death certificate. In some cases, an inquest can be held involving a missing person and if it is almost certain a missing person has died, a coroner may make a declaration of death under the Coroners Act 1962, which allows the family to obtain a death certificate.

The commission's report recommends reform of the law on presumed death in particular to ensure families can deal as far as possible in the least expensive way with the emotional trauma of a loved one going missing. When a person goes missing, more often than not it is completely unexpected and affairs are not usually in order. Issues such as paying bills, access to bank accounts and renewing insurance fall to families, with many facing considerable difficulties as a result. We are all too aware of those who remain missing in communities across this country. The impact of these disappearances continues long beyond the initial occurrence. This Bill can form a small but important role in easing the burden on a family when a relative goes missing. On behalf of Fianna Fáil, I commend the Bill and we fully support it.

Beidh Sinn Féin ag tacú leis an reachtaíocht seo. Tá an reachtaíocht ciallmhar agus luachmhar agus tá tábhacht ag baint leis. Ba mhaith liom tréaslú leis an Seanadóir Colm Burke a thosaigh an obair air seo agus tugaim aitheantas don Aire as a chuid obair ar an reachtaíocht. Mar an gcéanna tugaim aitheantas dár Teachtaí féin, na Teachtaí Jonathan O'Brien agus Pearse Doherty a thug píosa reachtaíochta chun cinn 3 bliana ó shin. Sinn Féin will support this Bill, which is valuable legislation, and we have long been of the view that there was a need for this type of legislation. The Minister acknowledged Senator Colm Burke for bringing forward this legislation but two of my colleagues, Deputies Jonathan O'Brien and Pearse Doherty, have proposed similar legislation. We have long supported a move of this kind.

The Bill is designed to provide arrangements for the management of a missing person's property but also for processes where the circumstances of the person's absence leads to presumption of death. This presumption would apply to persons where the death is virtually certain and where both the circumstances and the length of the disappearance indicate it is highly probable that the missing person has died. For example, it might be where the disappearance occurred in dangerous circumstances or other circumstances where the loss of life might be presumed. The law currently allows for the assumption that a person is alive for up to seven years after he or she goes missing but it is not conclusive. Under the Coroners Act 1962, an inquest can be held where the body of a missing person has not been found. If the inquest concludes that the missing person has died, the death may be registered as it would under normal circumstances. This is a key matter for the families of many missing persons in Ireland today.

Tá sé tábhacht go dtugaimid aitheantas do na clanna, an pian atá á fhulaingt ag cuid maith daoine agus cé chomh deacair is atá sé do na teaglaigh sin go léir. Mar an gcéanna leis na daoine atá ceangailte le duine a cailleadh agus a shíleann go bhfuil an duine sin caillte. Is rud an-dian é sin, go mórmhór nuair a bíonn ualach mór obair le déanamh in éineacht leis an bpian agus na fulaingt tar éis duine a bheith ar iarraidh. Ba chóir dúinn, nuair is féidir linn, an t-ualach a dhéanamh níos lú. While we are debating this legislation, we should reflect on and remember the significant loss suffered by many people throughout this State. There are hundreds of families across the country missing family members or friends. Between 7,000 and 8,000 people are reported missing every year. In 2018 alone, the number of reports of missing persons to An Garda Síochána was 8,215, with 45 of these people remaining missing at the end of the year. Most missing people turn up within a very short time and less than 1% remain missing for a long time. For the families and friends of those 1% who never return home, there is pain and drawn-out grief and uncertainty. All the while these people fear the worst but cannot get closure, so it must amount to unimaginable torture. For those people, the Bill can provide some practical and moral help. It will bring this jurisdiction into line with the North and Scotland, as well as other jurisdictions, in allowing for an application to be made to a register of presumed deaths. A presumed death will only be registered if it meets the strict criteria laid out in the Bill.

This Bill comes from a hope that when the worst must be presumed, family members of the missing person do not have to suffer more difficulty than necessary. There is a gap in legislation that benefits nobody and compounds the tragedy of missing persons cases for families even further. I note that proposals along these lines were proposed not only by this Bill and previous Bills but also by the Law Reform Commission on the issue of how our legal system deals with missing persons.

Ba mhaith liom aitheantas a thabhairt dó sin agus an tuarascáil a bhí aige i mí Eanáir, 2013 faoin dlí sibhialta, agus gnéithe a bhaineann le daoine atá ar iarraidh, a thugann anailís agus práinn oibre do na fadhbanna atá ann ó thaobh ár reachtaíochta faoi láthair agus déanann sé 19 moladh ar na feabhsuithe a d'fhéadfaí a dhéanamh ar an reachtaíocht agus an tslí a dhéileálann an Stát leis na gnéithe go léir a bhaineann leis na staideanna nuair atá duine ar iarraidh.

In particular, I acknowledge the Law Reform Commission's report dated January 2013 entitled Civil Law Aspects of Missing Persons, which provides a comprehensive analysis of the drawbacks of our current legislative framework and makes 19 recommendations on the improvements that can be made in how the State responds to the many issues that arise from circumstances where a person is missing. The Law Reform Commission's 2013 paper details how one of the greatest challenges to families having to cope with these situations is one of "ambiguous loss" where much of the emotional impact on those left behind can be attributed to the lack of information when a person goes missing.

Is iad seo daoine atá faoi bhrú agus a d'fhéadfaí an-tionchar a bheith aige seo ar a saol. Taobh amuigh den tionchar maidir lena gcuid mothúchán agus a gcuid meabhrach, tá impleachtaí praiticiúla agus airgeadúla do na teaghlaigh ann freisin i dtaca le fáil a bheith acu ar chuntais bhainc, ar mhorgáistí, ar airgead agus ar mhaoin, ar gach rud a bhaineann leis sin. Téann sé sin sách dian orthu, go mór mór nuair atá na ceisteanna fós ann go pointe áirithe ina gcuid ceann.

These are people who are often in a vulnerable situation and these circumstances can have a significant impact on their lives. Beyond the emotional impact, there are immediate practical and financial implications that families have to deal with such as accessing bank accounts, making mortgage repayments, settling affairs in other ways and other issues relating to property. All these matters can make life more complicated. If we can assist and lessen the burden in any way, that is an endeavour worth pursuing. The fact that, under our current arrangements, families can be caught in this limbo for seven years is unacceptable and shows just how much we need to reform the system.

Mar sin, mar a dúirt mé, is dóigh liom go dtéann an Bille seo cuid mhaith sa tslí ba chóir dó a bheith ag dul chun feabhas a chur ar an bhfaillí agus an t-easnamh atá ann ó thaobh na reachtaíochta faoi láthair agus atá tar éis a bheith aitheanta ag an mBille seo agus an Bille cheana ag an gCoimisiún um Athchóiriú Dlí. Ba mhaith liom a rá arís go mbeidh Sinn Féin ag tacú leis an mBille seo agus tá súil agam gur féidir linn cabhrú leis tríd na Tithe chomh luath agus gur féidir linn agus go bhféadfaí an Bille a bheith ina dhlí seo againne ag deireadh na bliana.

I am also pleased to be able to speak on the Civil Law (Missing Persons) Bill 2016, which is important legislation. I have just heard about the result from Westminster, which is a sad and bleak place at the moment. At the outset, I commend the work that took place on this Bill in Seanad last year where the Bill originated and was debated. I specifically note the work of Senator Colm Burke in this regard. I was shocked to learn from the Seanad debates that the number of missing persons reported in Ireland increased from 5,000 in 2004 to 9,000 in 2014. It is simply unimaginable to think about what these families and their loved ones suffer when a person goes missing. As we know, the Law Reform Commission published a report on civil law aspects of missing persons in 2013. It made a number of recommendations that have found their way into this Bill.

Some of the aspects of this legislation are highly complex and require careful management and scrutiny. As the Law Reform Commission has noted, the need to deal with the return of a missing person also arises because some adults who go missing do so voluntarily. We must never forget that. The commission's report noted that they may simply wish to break contact with family or friends, which can sometimes be connected with personal or emotional reasons. In such an instance, the missing person may be unaware that the disappearance has resulted in the appointment of an interim manager or a declaration of presumed death. It could also arise where fraud is involved, as in the case of John Darwin, the English man who faked his own death while out canoeing. Is mór an trua an rud sin. There is also the matter of when an Irish citizen disappears abroad. As far as the commission is concerned, if a person goes missing abroad in circumstances that indicate that death is virtually certain, a presumption of death order may be obtained in the courts immediately. The current law is, however, unclear as to the position where a foreign court issues a declaration of death or presumed death for an Irish citizen who disappears while abroad. The commission was of the view that in such a case, those left behind should not be at a disadvantage by virtue of the location of the disappearance. This is a very interesting and fair comment. The commission, therefore, concluded that where an Irish citizen disappears while abroad, an application may be made to the Circuit Court for any of the orders already provided for in this report. The commission also recommends that any such application should be subject to the same criteria as apply where the court grants such orders in respect of a person who has gone missing in Ireland.

The primary purpose of the Bill before us, however, is to deal with the civil law status of missing persons. As the explanatory memorandum makes clear, it puts a statutory framework in place that would provide for the making of a presumption of death order in respect of two categories of missing persons. The first category is where the circumstances of the disappearance indicate that death is virtually certain while the second category is where both the circumstances and the length of the disappearance indicate that it is highly probable that the missing person has died and will not return, which is where the disappearance occurred in dangerous circumstances or in other circumstances in which loss of life may be presumed. In that regard, I certainly welcome the fact that the Bill is intended to clarify the legal position when a person is missing, who is entitled to apply to the court for an interim manager to be appointed to manage the missing person's estate and what procedures must be complied with before the courts will issue a presumption of death order.

What is vital here is that we get the balance and that we do not enact legislation that will allow any unreasonable determinations to be made with regard to what has happened to the missing person. Getting the right balance is vital with all legislation. Often times we do not, which is why it is important that we have proper perusal and pre-legislative scrutiny and debate. The very good debate in the Seanad pointed out a lot of issues for which I thank the Senators. It is particularly vital in this area because the trauma visited on a family, loved ones or, in cases where the person is single and has no siblings and where his or her parents have died, friends, neighbourhood and community is significant. On many occasions, voluntary groups such as the Irish Red Cross and Civil Defence Ireland assist An Garda Síochána in searching for the person. It is vital that we explore all these issues and have an exhaustive search but it is also vital that we have a proper legal framework afterwards. If it happens in a different jurisdiction, we must be sure we have robust legislation that can overrule that or have a second look at that so families and loved ones are satisfied that all eventualities are covered and are catered for in this legislation.

I look forward to seeing this legislation progress through the House. I offer the Minister my assistance and that of the rest of the Rural Independent Group. Losing a friend, a colleague or even a parishioner puts us in a lonely place. The Minister knows this as he represents rural Ireland, but the same applies to urban Ireland. A community of people will always be affected and impacted. It is important they get solace and satisfaction and that, first, an exhaustive search is carried out and, second, there is robust legislation in place that can and will determine that all proper processes and steps have been gone through, rather than something over which there are question marks. We have many missing persons. I refer to Jo Jo Dullard and many others and the trauma these families go through. I support this legislation.

Losing a loved one is one of the hardest things we have to cope with during our lives, but losing a loved one whose body is not recovered is a harrowing situation for anyone to be in and an extremely painful time. Sadly, this situation is more common than people realise. The records of the missing persons bureau of An Garda Síochána show that almost 26 people are reported missing every day and more than 9,000 people are typically reported as missing to the Garda every year. With God's help, some of these people will be found well. Sadly, however, for many more families, some people are never found. This Bill will help families of missing persons who are presumed dead to settle their affairs sooner than they could have in the past.

I come from a rural part of west Cork where we have a huge fishing community. Sadly, in the fishing community many lives have been lost at sea over the years, and in many cases it can be some time before a body is recovered. The grave reality is that some bodies are never recovered. For the families this is an awful time in their lives. Not only have they lost a loved one, but it is also very difficult for these families to find closure. The emotional strain and stress these families endure is heartbreaking. Not only do they have to deal with the emotional trauma, but they are also left trying to deal with the financial and legal situation.

Families of missing persons currently face a long battle to settle the estate of a loved one who is presumed dead but whose body has not been found. These families cannot obtain a death certificate when the loved one is missing, even if he or she is presumed dead - for example, when a person is lost at sea - and even though the family may have accepted that the loved one will never come home. Under the current system, these heartbroken families cannot obtain death certificates for their loved ones. The inability to obtain a death certificate creates huge legal obstacles for the families. For example, they cannot claim on the life insurance policy of the holder, claim a pension or wind up a business.

We must bear in mind that some of these families will find themselves in serious financial difficulty when a loved one is missing and presumed dead if they cannot access money from a life insurance policy, access a pension fund or wind down a business, etc. This leaves these families struggling to survive financially. In reality, it leaves them in limbo, unable to take any action in respect of their loved one's affairs. It is important to me, especially coming as I do from a fishing community, as I said, where, sadly, I have seen first-hand so many families suffer the trauma of losing a loved one at sea, knowing in their hearts of hearts that their loved one will not return home, that these families are treated with compassion and understanding. We need to do all in our power to help these heartbroken families and not to add in any way to their suffering.

I welcome this Bill as it puts in place a statutory framework which will provide for the making of a presumption of death order when someone is missing and presumed dead. The Bill is designed to assist the families of missing persons in dealing with the management of the missing person's estate and seeks to provide a clear pathway for families to overcome these challenges at what is already a very difficult time. The Bill will bring a degree of certainty to the lives of the families of missing persons who are presumed dead by allowing these families to make legal and financial decisions in order for them to continue to survive after such a tragic event.

It is important we mention death benefit, which helped many people with their funeral costs. This benefit was once open to everyone who had lost a loved one to apply for but it is now gone and has been replaced by the occupational injuries benefit scheme. However, this scheme is only available if someone dies due to a workplace accident. I call for the death benefit to be made available again to everyone who wishes to apply for it, not only people who have lost their loved ones through workplace accidents. When a person loses a loved one, it is an extremely difficult time, and we should be looking at ways to make this period of someone's life as stress-free as humanly possible. Quite a lot of people in my constituency have come to me down through the years pleading for the death benefit grant to be brought back to the people. The same is probably true of every other constituency. This is a cruel cut at a very difficult time in people's lives. The loss or death of a loved one can be a deeply distressing time. It has been brought to my attention that when Irish people die abroad, their deaths cannot be registered in Ireland if their bodies are not found. This is most heartbreaking for the family and the loved ones of the deceased. As far as I know, a Bill dealing with this issue has been in the Dáil for a number of years and needs to be passed but has not been passed. I empathise with any family left in this situation. This is such a difficult time for a family, and we need to look at ways of supporting bereaved families and allowing these deaths to be registered in Ireland.

I am glad to get the opportunity to say a few words in support of the Bill. As we all know, for as long as we can remember, sadly, people have gone missing and at a certain stage can be deemed definitely dead or presumed dead. I refer especially to those girls in the midlands and indeed the young child in the Leas-Cheann Comhairle's county, Mary Boyle. We all remember them and the people left behind. Their loved ones suffer while they live with the suddenness of these people going missing and never returning home.

Then there are people who go missing for various reasons and disappear practically off the face of the earth, and the figures in this regard have been given. Their families are hurt and have been left behind, suffering anguish and pain daily. We cannot imagine what these people go through. When a partner in a marriage or a civil partnership goes missing, the person left behind needs at some stage to be allowed carry on his or her life and live it in some normal fashion. I hope the Bill will give these people some rights and provide some light in terms of the way they will be allowed to go forward. I refer to property rights, the determining of ownership of homes and land and dealing with mortgages, bank accounts and all the daily, mundane things families must go through, whether it be a man or a woman left behind. If they have children, these children must be looked after, given the same chances as every other child, get schooling and go to college or whatever. If the deceased had land, the children should have the chance at a later stage to operate it, put it in their names and work it like every other person of their age and in the same position.

It is very important we get this right. Examples have been given. If an Irish person, let it be a man or a woman, perhaps goes missing abroad for a year and may have left for very good reasons, we cannot have the scenario that that person would come back to deal with their ownership of and rights in respect of whatever property, whether a house, a farm or land, and perhaps find some other head in the bed, whether a man or a woman, instead of the person they left. We could not have that after a short period such as a year or so because people leave their homes and the places where they live and have been working for many reasons we may not understand. However, the Law Reform Commission's draft civil law (missing persons) Bill 2013, states that "the fact that for a period of 7 years or more the other party to the marriage has been continually absent from the applicant and the applicant has no reason to believe that the other party has been living within that time shall be evidence that the other party is dead until the contrary is proved".

What is important for us, as Members, is that we get the balance right in cases where a person does not seem to be returning. As Deputy Michael Collins said, we have to differentiate between cases. For instance, there are cases where fishermen are lost at sea and their bodies are never found. There is no question whatsoever of that person not being dead. In those cases, people need to be allowed to carry on with their lives and should not have to wait a long time to get a death certificate. They should be allowed deal with issues of property rights and benefits they may hope to receive from State. Such a situation has to be treated differently from a person who may disappear in another fashion. I refer to a case where a person goes missing for a number of years and there is no sign that he or she will be returning. There are no sightings of that person in the jurisdiction or, indeed, beyond it.

I am glad to support this Bill. However, we have to be careful to strike the right balance. We must ensure what is intended does not hurt people who may actually not be dead.

I acknowledge what I perceive to be all-party support as well as support from the Independent benches for this important and sensitive legislation. I thank all the Deputies for their comments and I look forward to working together to ensure we pass this legislation in due course.

Question put and agreed to.