I am pleased to introduce the CervicalCheck Tribunal (Amendment) Bill 2021 to Seanad Éireann. The purpose of this amendment to the CervicalCheck Tribunal Act 2019 is to extend the period for receipt of claims by the CervicalCheck Tribunal. 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 2021. This Bill proposes extending 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.
While this is a technical amendment, I once again acknowledge the profound impact the CervicalCheck debacle has had on the women and families affected. The tribunal was established in October 2020 under the CervicalCheck Tribunal Act 2019, which implements the recommendations of Mr. Justice Charles Meenan by providing for the tribunal as a more sensitive and timelier alternative to the courts for eligible claims. Following a pause in the steps towards full establishment to allow for discussions with the 221+ patient representative group, the establishment of the tribunal was completed with the appointment of the nominated members to the tribunal in December 2020. At that time, I gave a commitment to patient advocates that their members would not be disadvantaged by the five-week pause in establishment during which claims could not be made. Unfortunately, as we now know, after the appointment of the members on 1 December, the epidemiological situation in Ireland worsened considerably. Public health restrictions imposed to protect health and save lives caused significant disruption to all legal proceedings, and particularly those proceedings where claimants had to attend medical practitioners to secure reports on their conditions.
It was only in March 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 affected by the cyberattack. That resulted in the tribunal’s email and databases being taken offline. This measure was purely precautionary, but it was only at the end of June that the tribunal was again fully connected. All of this has been deeply frustrating, not least for those directly impacted, and has had the effect of substantially reducing the timeframe during which eligible women can access the tribunal. This amendment ensures they will be given as much time as possible to consider the options available and make the choice they believe is right for them.
It is important to state that the 221+ support group made several requests in advance of the setting up of the tribunal. We were able to accommodate many of those requests, but not all. I acknowledge the group's disappointment that it was not possible to allow for recurrence as a mechanism in the tribunal, for example. Unfortunately, while the Government very much wanted to accommodate all those requests that were made, we were precluded by the clear legal advice received from the Attorney General in this regard.
The tribunal has received seven claims to date. The State Claims Agency, SCA, has advised that additional plaintiffs have made formal requests to transfer their claims to the tribunal from the courts and, in addition, more claimants have expressed an interest. I am advised that the tribunal and the 221+ support group are also receiving queries, so it is expected that the tribunal will, ultimately, deal with more claims. The tribunal has agreed to my request to make its premises available to women eligible for the tribunal regarding the hearing of their claims, even if they choose to remain in the High Court. The tribunal's premises have been designed with privacy in mind and it has similarly agreed to make its facilities available at no cost for the mediation of CervicalCheck claims.
Before concluding, I mention that the CervicalCheck Tribunal Act 2019 provides for restoration of trust meetings. The intention behind such a meeting is to document experiences, facilitate discussion and provide information to those affected by issues concerning CervicalCheck, or to the family if it is the case that a woman has sadly died. This option is open to all women eligible for the tribunal, irrespective of whether they make a claim to the tribunal. A recruitment campaign is now being conducted for moderators. Amendments to the CervicalCheck Tribunal Act 2019 will ensure that those eligible for the tribunal will have ample time to consider whether they will make a claim to it. I thank the House for taking the Bill as speedily as it has.