I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
We are here today to introduce the CervicalCheck Tribunal (Amendment) Bill 2021 to Dáil Éireann. I begin by thanking my colleagues, the other Deputies, for facilitating the Second Stage debate at this early date. While this is a technical amendment, I acknowledge the profound impact the CervicalCheck debacle has had on women and families who have been affected. It will take some time to restore the loss of trust but I am very confident in the management team at CervicalCheck and I know there is some great work being done by the CervicalCheck steering committee.
The purpose of this amendment to the CervicalCheck Tribunal Act 2019 is to extend the period for receipt of claims by the CervicalCheck tribunal and to provide that I, as Minister for Health, may by order extend that period further. The tribunal was established under the CervicalCheck Tribunal Act 2019 which implements the recommendations of Mr. Justice Charles Meenan by providing the CervicalCheck tribunal as an alternative to the courts for eligible claims. Mr. Justice Meenan was asked by the then Government to review, in the case of women affected by CervicalCheck issues, mechanisms which would avoid, wherever possible, women and their families having to give evidence in the courts. Mr. Justice Meenan proposed that claims arising out of CervicalCheck could be resolved outside the court process and that a tribunal should be established under statute for the purpose of hearing and determining these claims.
In December 2018 the then Government agreed to establish the CervicalCheck tribunal. The legislation necessary to establish the tribunal, the CervicalCheck Tribunal Act 2019, passed through the Oireachtas and was signed into law by the President on 23 July 2019. The tribunal was established in October 2020. Following a pause in the steps towards full establishment to allow for discussions with the 221+ patient representative group about the tribunal and CervicalCheck cases more generally, establishment of the tribunal was completed with the appointment of the nominated members to the tribunal on 1 December 2020. At that time I gave a commitment to 221+ group that their members would not be disadvantaged by the five-week pause in establishment during which claims could not be made.
As we all know too well, the past 15 months have been a challenging time for everyone. Covid-19 has affected every aspect of life and the CervicalCheck tribunal has been no different. The tribunal experienced delays in the development of its premises, which are a welcoming, modern and purpose-built space, and have been designed with the specific sensitivity to the needs of claimants. Unfortunately, as we now know, after the appointment of the members on 1 December, the epidemiological situation in Ireland worsened considerably and the necessary restrictions imposed on movement and working practices caused significant disruption to all legal proceedings, particularly those where claimants had to attend medical practitioners to secure reports on their conditions.
It was only in March of this year when restrictions had eased somewhat that the tribunal received its first claims. The tribunal suffered a further blow in May of this year when it too was impacted by the criminal cyberattack which resulted in the tribunal’s email and databases being taken offline.
This measure was purely precautionary, and there is no evidence that any information was accessed or compromised in any way, but it was only at the end of June that the tribunal was again fully connected. This combination of circumstances has had the effect of substantially reducing the timeframe during which eligible women and families can access the tribunal. This amendment ensures they will be given as much time as possible to consider the options available and to make the choice they believe is right for them.
The 221+ support group made a number of requests in advance of the setting up of the tribunal. We would very much have liked to accommodate all these requests. Unfortunately, some of them were not possible to deliver because of clear legal advice laid out by the Attorney General. I acknowledge the group's disappointment that we were not able to allow for recurrence, for example. It was, thankfully, possible to accommodate many of the requests made for ongoing support for the 221+ group, supports for women and families affected and other assurances relating specifically to the tribunal itself.
The tribunal has received five claims to date. The State Claims Agency has advised that additional plaintiffs have made formal requests to transfer their claims to the tribunal from the courts and that more claimants have expressed interest. I am advised that the tribunal and the 221+ support group are getting queries also, so it is expected that the tribunal will ultimately deal with more claims.
I can also inform colleagues in the House that I have requested, and the tribunal has agreed, that the tribunal premises will be made available to women who are eligible for the tribunal for the hearing of their claims even if they choose to remain in the High Court. As Mr. Justice Meenan recommended, the tribunal's premises have been designed with privacy in mind, so they are not suitable for public hearings. It is also true that women who choose to keep their claims before the High Court will not be able to take advantage of the streamlined procedures available to them in the tribunal. Nevertheless, women should not feel pressured to take a claim to the tribunal solely because of the superior facilities available. As many women as possible should have the benefit of these. The tribunal has similarly agreed to make its facilities available for the mediation of CervicalCheck claims, which is very welcome.
The current time limits for making a claim to the tribunal are set out in section 12(1) of the 2019 Act. The current relevant time limit for all eligible women is nine months from the date of establishment, which is 26 July of this year. The Bill proposes to extend the final date for receipt of claims to the tribunal by way of an initial six-month extension and allows for one further extension of six months.
As well as the tribunal's function in hearing and determining claims, the CervicalCheck Tribunal Act 2019 provides for restoration of trust meetings. The intention behind a restoration of trust meeting is to document experiences, facilitate discussion and provide information to women affected by the issues relating to CervicalCheck, or to her family if it is the case that the woman has died. The meeting process is open to all women who are eligible for the tribunal, regardless of whether they make a claim to the tribunal. A facilitator of the meetings has recently been identified and preparatory work necessary to offer the service is ongoing. I am advised that the facilitator intends to carry out a wide-ranging stakeholder consultation process while the moderator recruitment campaign is being conducted.
The amendments to the CervicalCheck Tribunal Act 2019 will ensure that any woman who is eligible for the tribunal will have ample time to consider whether they will make a claim to the tribunal. I commend the Bill to the House.