Inquests need radical overhaul to make them more humane for families, says barrister

Doireann O'Mahony said families often report that they found the atmosphere surrounding the inquest of their loved one to be intimidating
Inquests need radical overhaul to make them more humane for families, says barrister

Olivia Kelleher

A barrister who represents families at inquests says the system requires a radical overhaul to make it more humane, while increased support needs to be given not only to the loved ones of the deceased but to overworked offices of the coroner.

Doireann O'Mahony, who practices in the area of medical negligence, is the co-author of the recently published book Medical Inquests, written with Roger Murray and David O’Malley.

In an interview on the Claire Byrne show on RTE Radio 1, Ms O'Mahony said that families often report that they found the atmosphere surrounding the inquest of their loved one to be intimidating.

"It is very difficult for a grieving family to come i to a court and be faced [with] one, sometimes two or more sets of lawyers for the hospital or consultants. They (the lawyers) are familiar with the procedure.

"But for some of these families it is their first time entering the court of the coroner. They are unaware of what happens. It can be a nerve-wracking procedure for them."

Answers

Ms O'Mahony said there are "too many inconsistencies" in the handling of inquests in difference courts of the coroner throughout the country.

"There needs to be a set of rules so that the procedure followed in one coronial district is the same as the procedure in another. Since the advent of Covid-19 there have been major delays and backlogs around the country.

"Many of these people (families) see the inquest as a milestone in their grieving process. They hope and believe it can give them the answers they are looking for. Or some kind of closure.

"Unfortunately the reality is that in many cases it doesn't. I have certainly represented many families who have come out of the court wondering what that was all for. And feeling they are more confused than when they went in."

Ms O'Mahony said inquests are often very "adversarial."

"In fact they are supposed to be inquisitorial in nature. I have certainly seen many instances where lawyers for an organisation will be jumping up and down objecting to questions posed by lawyers (for the family).

"I have heard families describe it as if their loved one were on trial."

Meanwhile, over 20 years ago a comprehensive report from the Coroner's Review Group recommended a suite of reforms as to how inquests should be conducted in the State.

Last year the Irish Council for Civil Liberties conducted its own report into reform of the service. The study found that the system in place is "decreasingly fit for purpose" and creates "human rights violations."

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