I suppose the Minister has no remedy but subsection (5) of Section 6 is one of the choicest examples I have ever seen of the Parliamentary Draftsman's art of reference to something else. Could it not be put in a simpler way? It took me a quarter of an hour to make out what it meant. The subsection is very complicated. It refers to Section 10, Section 7 and so on.
Coroners Bill, 1961—Committee Stage.
I plead guilty.
I do not think the Minister is personally guilty. I did not say that.
I move amendment No. 1:
In subsection (3) (c), page 5, lines 2 and 3, to delete "either generally or for a particular appointment".
The amendment is really to subsection (3) (c) of Section 8. Under this section the Appointments Commission are authorised to appoint a coroner and the Minister has power to make regulations which, of course, would bind the Appointments Commission. In subsection (3) (c) it is set out:
the Minister shall, after consultation with the Local Appointments Commissioners, declare, either generally or for a particular appointment, the qualifications as to age, health and character for appointment to the office of coroner.
My amendment seeks to delete the words "either generally or for a particular appointment". The object of the amendment is to ensure that there will be general qualifications as to age, health and character which shall apply to all appointments. It is fundamentally unsound that it should be possible to prescribe different qualifications for different appointments. I would urge that very strongly in respect of the qualification of age.
I think that if the Minister considers it seriously he will come to the conclusion that he might be put in a very difficult situation if the section stands as it is now. For example, there is a maximum age limit applicable for the appointment of rate collectors. I should hate to think what would be the position of any Minister for Local Government if he had power to vary that upper age limit. All sorts of pressure would be brought to bear on him from all sorts of people, and there would be no end to it.
As I say, I think this power which the Minister is taking is unnecessary. It could be abused. If the general qualifications were prescribed to apply to the whole country everyone would know where he stood, and no pressure would be brought to bear on the Minister from any direction. As I understand it, heretofore there was a minimum age limit for the appointment of coroners. I think it was 30 years of age. I do not know whether there was a maximum. At any rate, I do not know what is the object of taking power to vary the age limit. I think it is unsound, unnecessary and inadvisable.
The objective of the provision in the Bill is quite straightforward. I regard it as necessary and desirable that we should have this amount of flexibility. It will, I think, on occasion be desirable to have a different standard of qualifications for different posts. There is no doubt that the office of coroner in Dublin city and in Dún Laoghaire is much more important than the office of coroner, for instance, in one of our less thickly populated counties. Indeed, in Dublin the office is practically full time, and the salary of course is about ten times what it is in some of the less heavily populated counties.
As the Senator rightly pointed out, the minimum age limit prescribed up to now was 30 years. I visualise that that will continue to be prescribed as the minimum age for appointment, but I can also visualise it being necessary or desirable in relation to a particular appointment, say, in Dublin city, to have a higher age limit because the office is so much more important in Dublin city. It is also much busier, and we might want to get an older type of man with a great deal more experience. I am not saying that this provision applies exclusively to Dublin. I just mention that sort of situation as being one where you could justify the laying down of different conditions for different posts. The only variation that could be made in this regard is as to age. There is no scope for alteration of the conditions with regard to health or character.
Or knowledge, I presume.
In this section we are really talking about prescribing different age limits for different districts and I think that is a reasonable amount of flexibility to ask.
The next question one asks oneself is, is there any danger that it could be manipulated by an unscrupulous Minister to ensure the appointment of a particular person? I cannot see how any such result could ever arise from this provision. The Minister is still compelled by the section to prescribe the age generally for the particular appointment, and it would be inconceivable that a situation would ever arise in which he could so prescribe the age limit that he could, in fact, restrict a particular job to one particular applicant. I think that just cannot happen. There is no danger in it. The danger that Senator Fitzpatrick seems to see just does not exist. I do not think he can demonstrate that there is any reality in it. Therefore, if there is no danger in it, we should let it go and leave it as it is, because, as I say, the small amount of flexibility in the provision might on occasion be useful.
The matter has been fully argued in the Dáil and no one in that House was able to satisfy me that this could lead to abuses. As I say, if it will not or cannot lead to abuses, I do not think the amendment is necessary. Indeed, I have been thinking quite a lot about this provision and if I had to do it again I would come to the House and ask the House to let the Minister appoint the coroners. The more I think about the office of coroner the more I realise that the qualifications which are necessary are not really technical qualifications but qualifications of common sense, balance of judgement and matters of that nature, and I am not sure that the Minister for Justice could not make as good a selection from that point of view as the Local Appointments Commissioners.
I respectfully agree with the Minister that the real point in this amendment is the question of the age. I would have no objection at all to the Minister prescribing different qualifications for Dublin and Dún Laoghaire, and the rest of the country, but what I object to, and what I think is undesirable, is that the qualifications can be prescribed when the post has become vacant and the applicants are getting busy looking for the post. It may be that it is unlikely that the provision would be abused——
Or could be.
It may be unlikely that it would be but it certainly could be abused. The door is wide open if the Minister were so disposed. As I say, the one point that presents itself to me immediately is the position of the rate collector. There might not be the same demand or the same competition for the post of coroner as for the post of rate collector, but I certainly would hate to be in the position of the Minister for Local Government if he had power to change the qualifications for appointment of rate collectors.
The Minister has said that if he were doing it again he might come to the House and suggest that the Minister for Justice should appoint the coroners. If he did that I would not have the slightest objection. The appointment would be on the same basis as county registrars and State solicitors, and we would know where we stood. That is a point of view some people might not agree with but they could violently disagree with it.
If I were to talk for a week I could not say more than that I think it highly undesirable that when a position becomes vacant it is possible for the Minister to prescribe regulations which would exclude a particular person or a number of persons. I agree that the Minister cannot prescribe regulations which would confine it to one person, but he could prescribe regulations which would exclude a number of persons. By the process of elimination you might leave only one person in a particular county who would be interested in the job. I cannot put it further than that.
The Minister in asking the House to approve of this section made an appeal for a certain flexibility but I think his arguments have been in favour of allowing him to differentiate between certain types of area, between Dublin city and Dún Laoghaire and the remainder of the country. I would ask the Minister would the section meet his wishes if he were empowered to prescribe conditions either generally or in a particular class of appointment so that we would avoid narrowing it down?
I have considered this section very carefully and I must say, viewing it objectively, I am wholeheartedly in favour of the Minister's argument. You cannot, as the last Senator said, set out now the particular areas in which you would require certain alterations and certain exceptions. The population in different towns and districts alters and it might mean you would have to put in special rules for Cork, special rules for Limerick and then do you want special rules for Galway and for Waterford? What places do you want them for? In what places will the population increase and in what places will it decrease? Even if we thought so lowly of any Minister in the future that he would be dishonest—and I do not think any Minister of any Government has ever stooped to such a stage—and even if we had a dishonest Minister I cannot see how the section as it stands could allow anything improper to be done.
The regulations are prepared, not by the Minister, but by the Minister in consultation with the Local Appointments Commission who approach the matter objectively. The regulations for a particular district may require a person of more practical experience. You may need a lawyer or a doctor with more experience or perhaps a man with surgical qualifications. Surely to raise a point of this nature is splitting hairs? It should be left to the discretion of the Minister and the Local Appointments Commissioners where they feel special qualifications are required to decide what those qualifications are. To suggest that those qualifications are such that you could exclude anybody in any particular county, particularly in those large populous areas, Dublin, Cork, Limerick, Waterford, Galway, is not to deal with realities.
I do not think it has been suggested that any regulations made under this subsection would indicate one particular person for the position. Senator Nash must surely be aware that regulations could be made under this subsection which would exclude certain people and if you exclude certain people that is a step towards including certain others. Senator Dooge's suggestion is a practical one, that is to say, that a regulation should be made either generally or for a particular area, a named area. I know the regulations are made in consultation with the Local Appointments Commissioners but the fact is, of course, the Minister's age limit would be accepted by them. In the case of the Civil Service Commissioners what the Department want is accepted by the Commissioners and the regulations are nearly always made accordingly. I think that applies to local appointments as well. It is not a matter of very great gravity. I agree with the Minister that it applies only to the age limit but it is true that in a particular place for a particular position a particular Minister can prescribe a certain age different from the normal age prescribed all over the country. That could have the effect in special cases of excluding particular people. Certainly, the notion that for a particular appointment a particular age limit could be applied could lead to the exclusion of certain people.
The House is fairly well aware of the net point at issue. I am stubbornly clinging to my belief that this is, as Senator Nash put it, very well I thought, a reasonable sort of provision. Do not forget that the selection has still to be made by the Local Appointments Commissioners and, as Senator Hayes pointed out, all an unscrupulous Minister could do if he is sufficiently unscrupulous to want to do so, would be to exclude certain persons whom he did not like. That will not enable him to appoint a pal. So that, even at its very worst, all the unscrupulous Minister can succeed in doing is to render some person ineligible for appointment. I do not think that is a very serious risk for us to run. After all, if the Minister did do something outrageous he would be called on to answer for his action in the House. That in itself is a further protection.
Quite seriously, I want to assure the House that this is a reasonable provision which is necessary. If it were not, we would not look for it but we do think it desirable to leave this discretion in the Minister, that in regard to certain appointments he would have the authority to say to the Local Appointments Commissioners: "In regard to this appointment we want a much older man, a more experienced person and we want you to prescribe an age limit of 40 as distinct from the normal 30."
I am still not convinced but I am not pressing the amendment.
I move Amendment No. 2:
In subsection (3), line 28, to delete "inclusive" and substitute "exclusive".
I can be very brief on this amendment. The net effect of the amendment is to provide that travelling expenses shall be paid to coroners. The salary paid to a coroner at the moment is not very large. Some coroners have quite large counties or areas to cover and personally I think it is reasonable that they should be allowed travelling expenses. Most other people in the employment of the State, with the possible exception of State solicitors, are paid travelling expenses. I suggest the Minister should reconsider his decision in this regard.
I agree that it is a reasonable, straightforward request and one with which one would have a great deal of sympathy. However, I cannot accept the amendment. I should point out to the House that the coroner's salary is paid by the local authorities. Apart from any other considerations I would not like to add an expense of this nature on to the local authorities without prior consultation with them and the Minister for Local Government.
I want also to mention this aspect of the matter. The office of coroner is to a considerable extent a prestige appointment. There is a benefit to be derived from being appointed coroner which cannot be measured in money terms. The salary attaching to the particular appointment is not everything.
Most Senators will realise that there is a certain amount of benefit to be gained by being a coroner in a district apart from the financial reward. The Senator should keep that in mind when considering this matter. It has always been the law that the coroner's salary includes his out-of-pocket expenses, travelling and so on. I do not feel justified in asking local authorities to make a change. I do not think there is any real complaint from coroners themselves in regard to it. If there were, it is always open to them to procure an increase in salary itself. I should not like to contemplate a situation where we would get around to paying full-scale travelling and out-of-pocket expenses, with all that that means.
I raised a point the last day we were discussing the Bill. Is it necessary to have subsection (4) there when we already have, under subsection (2), "subject to the approval of the Minister"? Subsection (2) reads:
On a review under this section of a salary, the local authority shall, subject to the approval of the Minister, make a determination (in this section referred to as a provisional determination) that the salary shall be increased in a specified manner or that it shall be confirmed.
Subsection (4) reads:
Where a coroner is dissatisfied with a provisional determination, he may, within three months after being informed of the terms of the determination, appeal against it to the Minister.
The Minister has already approved of this scheme under subsection (2) and we have what seems an unnecessary appeal again to the Minister under subsection (4).
I would be inclined to leave that as it is. As I see it, the object of subsection (2) is that the local authority would submit proposals to the Minister and if the Minister considers those proposals reasonable he would approve of the salary, without, of course, having heard the coroner.
Under subsection (4), if the coroner is dissatisfied he comes along to the Minister, for the first time, with his case and he says: "I am not satisfied." The Minister can then look at the proposals from the coroner's point of view. It would be a mistake to interfere with it.
Senator Fitzpatrick has put it exactly as I would have put it myself. The original function of the Minister is merely to approve the determination of the local authority. The local authority are making the determination. In the second case, the Minister would review the situation in the light of the representations made to him by the coroner. There is that difference. On the second occasion, the Minister is actually determining the appeal himself. As Senator Fitzpatrick says, the section is all right as it stands.
The local authority may decide the amount of the salary. They say: "We can afford what we think is sufficient in this area, considering the work the coroner has had to do in the past two or five years. We know what it is. We say that £100 is quite sufficient." If the coroner questions or disagrees with that he has his own remedy if he does not think it sufficient. Why should he appeal to the Minister over the head of the local authority? In these cases, an increase would probably be given by reason of an appeal. It is going over the head of the local authority who have already decided, with their local knowledge, that so much is a sufficient salary to give to the coroner. Then the coroner can go to the Minister and say: "I want more" and he may get it.
It is very desirable to have that provision. You have a situation whereby the coroner was compelled to accept the scale laid down by the local authority. He had no means of improving it. The only alternative was to resign. That would probably lead to reappointments every day.
There is plenty of precedent for this course. The coroner is an officer of the local authority in the first instance. In the case of County Medical Officers of Health, staff officers or other officers, there is machinery similar to what is suggested in the measure to deal with certain questions of remuneration, where the officer is dissatisfied.
Senator Cole says the coroner is going over the head of the local authority. I do not take it that by appealing to the Minister he is going over their head. He is appealing against the decision the local authority make and which he feels is unjust. The issue is being referred to the Minister to make the decision in the final analysis. We have a precedent for that in many respects in local authority employment. I think it is good that that provision is contained in the Bill.
Another aspect is that this provision, as it is, will make for uniformity throughout the country. The Minister will know the general level of salaries paid, and so on. You might have a case of one local authority who would have a completely distorted view of the office and what it should carry as remuneration, and so on. It is important to have one central authority like the Minister to whom appeal can be made.
I think we might discuss Amendments Nos. 3, 4 and 5 together. Separate decisions can be taken on 3 and 5, if necessary.
Amendments Nos. 3 and 5 are to meet a point put forward by Senator Fitzpatrick which was examined by me and found to be a good one. He pointed out, as Senators will remember, that the Minister could give permission for the coroner to reside outside his district but that it would also be desirable that that permission should be capable of being withdrawn, if necessary. I accept that point, which is a good one.
I am much obliged to the Minister. I shall withdraw amendment No. 4 because it is completely covered by amendments Nos. 3 and 5.
I move amendment No. 6:
In subsection (5), line 50, to delete "inspector" and substitute "sergeant".
As I stated on Second Stage, there is a fairly strict obligation placed on a number of people, including the registrar of deaths, funeral undertakers and every occupier of a house or mobile dwelling etc., where a sudden death takes place, to report that sudden death immediately to the coroner.
Of course, it may be very difficult for any of these people to travel a very long distance and report the matter to the coroner but subsection (5) provides that the obligation just mentioned shall be deemed to be discharged if he, that is the person concerned, immediately notifies a member of the Garda Síochána not below the rank of inspector of the facts and circumstances required to be notified under that subsection.
It may not be generally appreciated that the number of inspectors of the Garda Síochána in the country is limited. Up to recently there were only 90 inspectors altogether. Now the maximum number has been raised to, I think, 110. I think it is true to say that a great many of those inspectors are stationed in the city of Dublin. By and large throughout the country a great many of the people never come in contact with an inspector of the Garda Síochána at all. There are only one or two of them stationed in most counties and they are usually stationed at district headquarters for the purpose of relieving the superintendent or work of that nature.
It could be, and, indeed, it is a fact that if a person were to report a sudden death directly to an inspector of the Garda Síochána in person it might mean that he would have to travel 40 miles. That could quite easily happen.
I also stated on Second Stage that I thought the obligation imposed on the citizens by this section could be amply discharged by reporting the matter to a sergeant of the Garda Síochána. The sergeant could report it to the inspector or the coroner. If the sergeant did not discharge his duties in this respect, surely it would be very easy to take disciplinary action against him? It is much more likely that a person would walk to the nearest Garda station and report a sudden death to a sergeant than that he would travel 20, 30 or even 40 miles to district headquarters to report a sudden death to the inspector.
I urge this amendment strongly on two grounds—the convenience of the ordinary citizen and, secondly, that it is more likely that the intention of the section would be complied with if the obligation could be discharged by reporting the matter to the local sergeant.
I should like if the Minister would be good enough to consider accepting the amendment proposed by Senator Fitzpatrick. The section is very strong—perhaps, stronger even than it appears at first glance. Senator Fitzpatrick referred to a sudden death but the section goes much further than that. It says: "or from any cause other than natural illness or disease for which he had been seen and treated by a registered practitioner within one month before his death." Therefore, even if a person dies from natural causes, unless that person has been seen and treated for those natural causes within one month prior to the death, it would seem to me that the section imposes an obligation to report it to the coroner or the inspector as the case may be.
You can visualise an old couple such as there are in most farmers' or labourers' places confined to bed for, perhaps, some years or on the bed and off the bed suffering from senile decay. There is no point bringing in a doctor because they are completely healthy within the limit of their years. They die from natural causes and no doctor has been to see them for a month before the death. When the death occurs, it has to be reported to the coroner or the superintendent or the inspector has to be looked for when there is probably a Garda station in the locality. If the matter is reported to the sergeant, he sends his report to the inspector. The inspector asks if there are any suspicious circumstances or not surrounding the death. He reports to the coroner. It can be suggested that a letter will do for a report or that a letter could be written to the inspector. Let us assume that there are suspicious circumstances surrounding the death which would warrant the coroner holding a post-mortem. The funeral would be over if the report were by letter. As the matter appears to me at the moment, I would very respectfully suggest that Senator Fitzpatrick's amendment is a reasonable one and I would ask the Minister to consider accepting it.
I do not——
I was going to indicate that I am persuaded. I am prepared to accept the amendment.
I am much obliged.
I move amendment No. 7:
In subsection (1), line 17, to add at the end of the subsection the following:—
"for a period of five years".
Amendments Nos. 7 and 8 can be discussed together.
Section 29, subsection (1) provides that:
Every deposition or note of the names and addresses of witnesses taken at an inquest, every report of a post-mortem examination made in pursuance of this Act and every record of the verdict returned at an inquest shall be preserved by the coroner.
Then subsection (2) goes on to provide that, when a coroner ceases to hold office, he is to hand those documents, which are important documents, over to the county registrar. The object of that is obvious to me. It is the intention to preserve these documents carefully. As far as I know, there is an arrangement whereby every so often the county registrar forwards all his public documents to the Public Record Office in Dublin where they are kept as public records. Of course, in the meantime, in the County Registrar's Office there is a proper system of filing, a strong room for those documents, and a proper system of indexing. As I understand it at the moment—I have the word of a coroner for this— the coroner must forward these documents to the registrar every year.
If this section remains as it is, a coroner appointed to-day to hold office for the next thirty-five or forty years can accumulate all documents of record which come into his possession by virtue of his office and keep them in his own possession until he ceases to be coroner, and then it is intended that they should be handed over to the county registrar. In a great many cases those documents would have become mislaid because the office of coroner is very much a part-time one and quite a few coroners might not have any staff. The medical coroners especially would not be expected to have extensive office assistance or storage space or filing system. It is very likely that the documents would become mislaid and if a coroner became careless, though not to the extent justifying the Minister in removing him from office, but about filing or writing records, I can visualise this position getting into a chaotic state.
Since I put down the amendment my attention was also drawn to the fact that the Bill as drafted provides that when a coroner ceases to hold office documents preserved by him under this section shall be handed over to the county registrar, but it does not say who has to hand them over. The documents might be in the possession of the man's next of kin. He might have been a coroner who lived in a hotel and the documents might be left there. Is there an obligation then on the proprietor of the hotel to hand them over? It is not even stated in the section that his personal representative should hand them over. In order to make this section effective not alone would I urge on the Minister to accept my amendments but I would also urge him to bring in further amendments providing that when a coroner ceases to hold office the person into whose custody the said documents passed shall forward them to the county registrar. I respectfully suggest to the Minister that this section needs to be looked into again, that it is absolutely essential that my amendment should be accepted if the section is to be effective, and that the other point that I have just raised should be borne in mind.
I am wondering if the Minister would have a look at this section again. The purpose of this Bill as I understand it is to ensure that for the future there will be a minimum of unregistered deaths, that in all those cases where a medical certificate has not been given, by reason of doctors not having been in attendance for a good while before, deaths can be registered. As the Bill stands in the case of everybody who has not had medical attention within a year before death, even though it was due to natural causes, the death will now have to be reported to the coroner and the coroner is bound to have reasonably large records. He will have the name and record of each individual.
What strikes me is that if the documents should not be handed over more often than every five years there may be difficulties. The county registrar must have a proper filing system and the means of being able to put his hands immediately on any record. Having regard to the fact that natural deaths having to be reported in the average county are bound to number perhaps a hundred in a year, if all these are bundled in together to the county registrar every five years I cannot see him taking his staff off other work to put them on to filing and building up an index so that those names can be picked out quickly.
All those reports of the coroner and all his records should be handed over to the county registrar's office once in each year. Thereby you would have a proper filing system, proper indexing and everything in order, as well as everything in one office and continuity of office and building.
I also think that not only should there be an obligation to do that but in the event of the death of the coroner that obligation must be carried forward to somebody; and if there is to be an obligation, furthermore there should be a sanction. You cannot impose a legal obligation without a legal sanction or penalty. Possibly the Minister has already applied his mind to these points and has ascertained that the solution posed in the Bill is the correct one. If so he will no doubt explain to us, but I think there should be a regular handing over every twelve months. There should be an obligation which, if the coroner dies or vacates or is removed from his office, should be carried forward to somebody else—the occupier of the building, the next of kin or some other person—and, thirdly, a sanction or penalty in the event of its not being done.
I entirely agree with the points made by the two Senators who have just spoken. I do not know if it would be practicable to have documents handed over once a year, because as far as I know the records a coroner is obliged to maintain are somewhat similar to those used by a registrar of births, deaths and marriages. If they are not in a loose leaf form it might not be practicable to have the documents stored as suggested once a year, but one thing that is definite is that they should be handed over at some regular intervals. One Senator suggested every five years, another suggested every year.
I do not know whether the county registrar is the proper person to hold these documents. The coroner is an officer of the local authority and we should have no fixed views as to whose custody they should be handed over to. I feel that the superintendent registrar of births, deaths and marriages under the local authority is just as likely to be expected to hold them as the county registrar. In any event the point made here regarding the county registrar sending the certificate records in his custody once in five years or ten years to the Public Records Office is a very important one. The entries in some of those documents at some time or other may be badly needed and some of them may be invaluable to some person.
The question of handing over the residue of documents in the event of a coroner ceasing to carry on his office by death, resignation or otherwise is not as clearly defined in the Bill as it might be. I agree with Senator Nash that there should be sanction of some kind. Alternatively, the appointment of deputy coroner is provided for under the Bill, and the deputy coroner could also have imposed on him some obligation to collect documents and certify that they have been handed over to the county registrar, or he may have to carry on the job. I want to stress the desirability of the Minister having another look at the matter and endeavouring to have the section amended with regard to the points raised.
I take it that when the Minister is available again later we can resume consideration of this Bill.
Is any particular time suggested? We will leave it open.