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Seanad Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 3 Jul 2019

Vol. 266 No. 11

Coroners (Amendment) Bill 2018: Report and Final Stages

Bill recommitted in respect of amendment No. 1.
Government amendment No. 1:
In page 10, between lines 23 and 24, to insert the following:
“Amendment of section 11 of Principal Act
6. Section 11 of the Principal Act is amended—
(a) in subsection (1), by the substitution of “until he or she attains the age of 72 years” for “until he reaches the age of seventy years”, and
(b) in subsection (3), by the substitution of “on attaining the age of 72 years” for “on attaining the age of 70 years”.”.

By agreeing to the motion to recommit, the House allows a Committee-style discussion on amendments Nos. 1, 3 and 4 only; that is, Members may speak more than once on each item. In respect of other amendments, I remind the House that a Senator may speak only once on Report Stage, except the proposer of an amendment, who may reply to discussion on the amendment. Each non-Government amendment on Report Stage must be seconded.

Amendments Nos. 1 to 3, inclusive are related and may be discussed together by agreement. Is that agreed? Agreed.

This group of amendments will extend the mandatory retirement age of coroners and deputy coroners from 70 to 72.

This change accords with Government policy on extending mandatory retirement ages, in line with increases in healthy and productive life expectancy. It responds to a long-standing request by the coroners’ representative body for extension for coroners’ mandatory retirement age to 72. Given that the deputy coroner effectively steps into the coroner’s shoes in the event of a vacancy, under section 13 of the Act, it makes sense to provide for a corresponding increase in the mandatory retirement age for deputy coroners.

Amendment No. 1 is the most substantial amendment in this grouping. It amends section 11 of the principal Act on the lines I have just described, to replace 70 years of age with 72 years, as the mandatory retirement age for a coroner. It also makes a corresponding change from 70 to 72 years, in the provision for a coroner to give three months’ notice to the Minister before he or she attains the mandatory retirement age.

Amendment No. 2 is a purely technical amendment in section 6 of the Bill. It refers to the insertion of a new subsection, which will be made by amendment No. 3.

Amendment No. 3 amends section 13 of the principal Act to extend the mandatory retirement age for a deputy coroner from 70 to 72 years of age, as well as a similar change in the notice period.

Amendment agreed to.
Bill reported with amendment.
Government amendment No. 2:
In page 10, line 36, to delete “and”.
Amendment agreed to.
Bill recommitted in respect of amendments Nos. 3 and 4.
Government amendment No. 3:
In page 11, line 3, to delete “section 9”.” and substitute the following:
“section 9”, and
(e) by the substitution of the following subsections for subsection (9):
“(9) Every deputy coroner appointed after the commencement of section 6 of the Coroners (Amendment) Act 2019 shall, unless he or she sooner dies, resigns or is removed from office or his or her appointment as deputy coroner is revoked under subsection (2), hold office until he or she attains the age of 72 years.
(10) Where a deputy coroner intends to resign or before vacating office on attaining the age of 72 years, he or she shall give notice of not less than 3 months of such intention to resign or vacation of office to the coroner for the coroner’s district concerned and to the Minister.”.”.
Amendment agreed to.
Government amendment No. 4:
In page 11, between lines 3 and 4, to insert the following:
“Arrangements for coroner’s district of Dublin
7. The Principal Act is amended by the insertion of the following section after section 13:
“13A. (1) Notwithstanding subsection (3) of section 13, the Minister may, upon a request in writing in that behalf from a coroner for the coroner’s district of Dublin, authorise a deputy coroner appointed by that coroner to act for that coroner—
(a) during a period, specified in the authorisation, that ends no later than 2 years from the commencement of section 7 of the Coroners (Amendment) Act 2019, and
(b) in any circumstances (not limited to the circumstances specified in that subsection),
for the purpose of increasing the number and progress of inquiries into deaths under this Act in that district during that period.
(2) A deputy coroner for the coroner’s district of Dublin who is authorised under subsection (1) to act for a coroner for that district shall, for the period while the authorisation is in force, have all the powers and duties of the coroner for that district and he or she shall be paid in respect of that period such salary as the Minister may, with the consent of the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, determine.”.”.

This is an administrative updating provision. It is intended to provide help to address the increasing workload and backlog of inquests in Dublin.

I will be brief. This is a sensible amendment and I support it. I note, however, that a number of the maternal deaths have been in other parts of Ireland and we might need to consider providing additional resources in those parts of the country as well. It behoves us to ensure all inquests in respect of the national maternity hospital are fulfilled in Dublin. If a large number of inquests are requested in the west and other parts of Ireland then additional resources and deputisation may be needed as well.

The amendment inserts a new section 13A into the principal Act. This new provision will allow the Minister, on receipt of a request from the Dublin coroner, to authorise his or her deputy coroner to conduct death investigations and inquests concurrently with the coroner, for the purpose of increasing the number and progress of inquiries into deaths in the Dublin coroner district. I accept the point that Senator Higgins has made and I am happy to look into the issue she has raised. I regard it as reasonable.

This amendment before us is a change to ensure that we can deal with necessary administrative reform. It will provide much-needed extra capacity in the Dublin district. All of us accept that it is particularly stretched despite the considerable work and productivity of the Dublin coroner, Dr. Myra Cullinane, and of her predecessor, Dr. Brian Farrell. I acknowledge their work and that of their office. I express my appreciation and thanks to each of them, to the Dublin deputy coroner and all of the staff in the Dublin coroner's office. I believe this amendment is important and I would be happy to follow up on the reasonable point made by Senator Higgins.

Amendment agreed to.
Bill reported with amendments.
Bill, as amended, received for final consideration.
Question proposed: "That the Bill do now pass."

Senator Higgins is indicating.

I have been indicating and waiting to make this important point. I want to speak briefly. I commend some representatives in the Gallery from the Elephant Collective and other groups as well as family members who have been strong advocates of this Bill. I commend Deputy Clare Daly, in particular, on championing this Bill.

She is now a former Deputy but Senator Higgins is correct.

I am sorry, I am referring to the former Deputy, Clare Daly, MEP. I also commend the Minister on engaging with this proposal and allowing it to happen. It would be very positive if this Bill could pass before the summer recess. It is will bring about transparency, as well as an important sense of closure in the form of information for families. It will also contribute to our collective understanding and to collective good practice regarding maternal health in Ireland. It is not only of great personal importance to those affected but is also part of a step forward in transparency and good practice in the area of reproductive rights. The Bill is a positive step. We are aware, however, that under the global gag rule, for example, we seen an increase in maternal deaths internationally. Along with steps backwards in technological and medical practices in many parts of the world, we have also seen the restriction of women's rights, medical supports and funding. Those factors have led to an increase in maternal deaths. I hope, therefore, that this Bill will not only be positive for families in Ireland.

I hope it will allow Ireland to be a strong advocate in the area of maternal health and rights internationally, at a time when such advocacy is very much needed. I commend the former Deputy, Clare Daly, MEP, as well as the families and the Minister.

I commend the Minister on the introduction of this Bill, which I support. It was originally proposed by the former Deputy, Clare Daly, MEP. As my colleague, Senator Higgins, has pointed out, this legislation is an important piece of the maternal healthcare jigsaw. We are playing catch-up and we need to play catch-up very rapidly. This is a very important step for Irish women. I am glad to see this Bill being passed by the Seanad today.

As I spoke on earlier Stages of this legislation, I will not prolong this afternoon's debate. I echo the words of thanks to the Minister, to the former Deputy, Clare Daly, MEP, to my colleague, Senator Mac Lochlainn, and to others who have been deeply involved in this work for some considerable time. Without seeking in any way to oversimplify it, this legislation is about helping people. It is about having sympathy and care and doing the right thing. That is why the Bill has garnered universal support in this Chamber and elsewhere. As colleagues have said, the practical outworking of this legislation can make a practical and tangible difference when people are going through difficult and traumatic circumstances.

I thank the Minister and everyone else who has been involved in the introduction of this Bill. I thank all the officials for the work they have done. It is important that we get this legislation right and that it is put in place properly. The work of the Department and the Minister clearly indicates that we have now arrived at the correct format. Amendments were required and amending legislation was required. I thank the Minister again.

I ask the Minister to keep recent changes in Cork in mind. I know nothing can be done in this respect now. I do not think the jurisdiction of coroners has changed in line with the extension of the city boundary in Cork. This may cause confusion at some stage in the future. When future legislation in respect of coroners is introduced, we might consider extending the boundaries that apply when appointments are made.

The important point made by Senator Burke about the changes that will result from the expansion of the boundary in Cork applies not just to coroners but to the entire public administration. I will be happy to look at that matter in the context of my Department and my Ministry and to engage further on any specific issues of that nature.

More generally, I am grateful to Senators for their constructive support for this important legislation. This is a very complex area of law. I acknowledge the constructive engagement of everybody. I reiterate my acknowledgement of the leadership shown by the former Deputy, Clare Daly, MEP, who played an important role in the development of this legislation, particularly in respect of the provisions relating to maternal deaths. She was anxious to ensure we would enact this legislation prior to the summer recess and that is still very much my intention. I acknowledge the presence in the Gallery of families that have been touched directly by these issues and have campaigned for many years for many of the changes we are now making in this Bill. I welcome them here again.

I acknowledge that these changes have been a long time in the making. I ask Senators to understand that the issues are quite complex. I am pleased that we have arrived at a decision and, as a result, Opposition Senators have agreed to enact the legislation. The changes we have made have to go back to the Dáil for approval. I do not expect that this will take too long. I expect the Dáil to consider the Bill before it rises for the summer vacation. I can give Senators and those in the Gallery an assurance to that effect, subject to the assent of the Business Committee.

I acknowledge the support and positive engagement of the coroners' representative body. I thank the current president of the Coroners Society of Ireland, Dr. Mary Flanagan, as well as Mr. Eugene O'Connor and others, for their ongoing input. We have not been in a position to address some issues fully in this legislation. I hope we can continue to work on those issues in the context of further legislation that I expect to advance, or see advanced, in the autumn. The Bill will return to the Dáil for approval. I thank my officials for dealing with issues of considerable complexity. I am grateful for the active engagement of the Attorney General and his officials. I expect that this Bill will be on the way to President Higgins for his signature by tomorrow week to facilitate its early enactment and early implementation.

I thank Senators for their co-operation in dealing with the first three items on today's agenda in 40 minutes. I thank the Minister and his officials for their co-operation.

Question put and agreed to.
Sitting suspended at 1.25 p.m. and resumed at 3 p.m.