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File photo of the Dublin District Coroner's Court. RollingNews.ie
staffing shortage

Dublin coroners complained they were conducting 50% fewer inquests last year due to admin staff shortage

Figures released by the Department of Justice earlier this month show a total of 526 inquests were ultimately completed during 2023.

CORONERS IN DUBLIN complained that they were conducting around 50% fewer inquests last year despite a doubling of the number of coroners because of a serious shortage of administrative staff.

Confidential documents show members of the Dublin District Coroner’s Court warned the Department of Justice last summer about their “grave concern” at the growing number of families experiencing increased delays in having inquests held into the deaths of their loved ones.

The documents released under freedom of information legislation reveal that the four coroners – Myra Cullinane, Cróna Gallagher, Clare Keane and Aisling Gannon – predicted last June that they were likely to complete fewer than 500 inquests during 2023.

They commented: “This falls significantly short of the 1,000 inquests required to be held annually in the Dublin District between the three sitting coroners.”

At the time, the senior coroner, Dr Cullinane, was assigned to oversee the long-running inquest into the deaths of the 48 people killed in the Stardust nightclub fire which concluded last month.

Figures released by the Department of Justice earlier this month show a total of 526 inquests were ultimately completed during 2023.

However, the coroners have estimated that 1,200 inquests are needed to be held annually “to eliminate the backlog of cases”.

They also pointed out that in 2019 when the service had just one full-time and one part-time coroner, a total of 777 inquests were completed.

“Families are now facing a delay of over two years from a date of death before inquests are heard and unfortunately this timeframe is increasing rather than reducing,” they added.

In a joint letter sent to the Department of Justice on 7 June last year, the four coroners observed:

“It is our collective view that currently the office is not fulfilling its administrative function to the standard expected of a public office.”

They warned that staff shortages were placing “an unmanageable workload” on the Dublin District Coroner’s Office which the coroners claimed had the potential to bring both their service and the Minister for Justice “into disrepute”.

The Department of Justice had originally refused to release elements of communications between the coroners and civil servants which highlighted specific details about the scale and impact of staff shortages within the coroner’s service in the capital.

The information was only released following an appeal to the Office of the Information Commissioner.

The figures also highlighted delays in the number of post mortem examinations being carried out at the Dublin City Mortuary in Whitehall where the annual number of cases has almost doubled since 2018 to 971 in 2022.

An analysis of over 1,000 non-forensic post mortem examinations conducted in the 12 months to April 2023 showed that less than a third were carried out within four days of arrival at the mortuary.

The coroners acknowledged that they had been given additional resources in recent years which had resulted in the appointment of two additional coroners and the provision of two extra courtrooms at the Richmond Educational Centre in North Brunswick Street.

However, they claimed cases from as far back as 2019 remained to be heard due to “reduced numbers of administrative staff”.

“The administrative function of this office is essential in supporting the coroners in their statutory role but as importantly is essential in ensuring that families are not caused further emotional distress or financial hardship while awaiting coroner’s certificates or inquests,” they added.

A spokesperson for the Department of Justice said it had significantly increased administrative supports to the Dublin District Coroner’s Office over the past year.

The spokesperson said additional administrative staff combined with the increase in the number of coroners and courtrooms had “greatly increased the capacity of the Office to hold inquests”.

“The staffing of the Dublin District Coroner’s Office is at its highest ever level, currently at 43, which is a very significant increase on the 27 assigned to this Office in January 2023,” he added.

The Department of Justice said the staffing and processes of the coroner’s service in Dublin was currently under review to ensure it was resourced and operating effectively “to manage demands into the future”.

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Author
Seán McCárthaigh