The role of the Coroner becomes important only when tragedy strikes with the sudden and unexplained death of a loved one. Tim Desmond is co-producer of this weekend’s Documentary on One: Cause of Death.
When a person we love passes away it is time of upheaval, grieving and change. When a loved one dies in sudden, violent or unexplained circumstances, the trauma is amplified by the nature of their passing. In cases of sudden or unexplained deaths in Ireland, everything from murder to suicide to road accidents, the principal legal officer involved in establishing the cause of death is the Coroner.
Listen to Documentary on One: Cause of Death below:
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In this weekend’s Documentary on One: Cause of Death (Saturday RTE Radio 1 @ 2.00pm, Sunday @7.00pm), Ruairi McKenna meets two of Ireland’s Coroners and hears the stories of some of the people they have served. Terrence Casey, the now retired Coroner for south and east Kerry says the role is not for everyone.
"You must remember it's 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year you're on call. There's no rest from it at all like, you can be called anytime of the day or night. It's not an easy job really. And you're dealing then with unfortunate circumstances like road traffic accidents where you see bodies torn apart, fires where you see the burnt bodies, this type of thing. It's not a job everyone would do."
Terrence reluctantly retired from the job when he reached the age of seventy this year. He felt he had the energy to continue for longer. It was a role he was passionate about because he dealt so closely with the grief of families, and tried always to help them through the process of dealing with the legal aspects of a tragic death, especially in the case of suicide;
"Suicides can be extremely disturbing because you’re dealing with families who basically blame themselves for not foreseeing that their son or daughter or uncle or aunt is going to commit suicide, and trying to converse with them and get them to understand that they are not to blame is the hardest part of it. At least if it was a road traffic accident, people say it was an accident, nothing could have been done, a fire, it was an accident, but a suicide they look upon it differently."
"We've been afraid to speak about suicide for so many years. People didn't talk about it. It wasn't reported in the papers and suicide was becoming more prevalent. A couple of years back, I had ten suicides in one sitting which is crazy."
The second coroner featured in the documentary is Doctor Eleanor Fitzgerald, who covers the large rural district of north Mayo. Eleanor took over her role from one of Ireland’s most outspoken and well known Coroners, Doctor Mick Loftus, when he retired in the 1990s. She explains the sometimes misunderstood role of Coroner:
"Our role is not really a forensic pathologist role but what we actually do is co-ordinate events. The office of the coroner would receive the calls of a sudden death but also give permission for the Gardaí to remove the body for post-mortem and then when the pathologist who does the post-mortem sends his report to us, we then arrange a date for an inquest to inquire into the death if it's necessary and the Gardaí then organise the statements from the witnesses. They investigate the death but when it comes to finalising or what happened and reaching a verdict, that's what my role is."
More than eleven thousand deaths were reported to the forty or so Coroners working in Ireland in 2016. All Coroners are either solicitors or doctors. Of the cases reported, more than three thousand deaths resulted in a post mortem being held with about two thousand of those cases going on to be investigated at inquest by the Coroners court. An inquest is not normally held if a post-mortem examination of a body can explain the cause of death. In many ways, the Coroners court resembles a normal court hearing in that witnesses are called, swear an oath and give evidence. Sometimes a Coroner will rule on a death themselves but on most occasions a jury is involved, and a majority verdict is reached on a cause of death. In all cases the Coroner is the one who issues a death certificate after establishing the cause of death. The documentary deals with a number of these cases and hears from parents, children and partners who talk about the procedures involved in their loss and the role the Coroner played during their time of grief. For all families the death certificate is important - as a legal document and a statement about the passing of their loved one.
"You must remember it's 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year you're on call. There's no rest from it at all..."
The role and relationship between the Coroners and the people they serve comes across strongly in the documentary. The role appears to be more than simply that of a legal officer and Coroners spend time explaining to families the procedures and terminology used and the consequences of what might have happened during an inquest hearing, as Doctor Fitzgerald explains:
"They want to know exactly what happened, what the death was due to. Especially if the person was at a doctor or in the hospital system, was there something not done? Did the doctors miss something? There is that probing questioning, finding it hard to accept how their loved one died. It is good in that (an inquest) brings it all out on the day and it does help to bring closure but others are not resigned to that fact and may want to go further with it but it's not really in the Coroner's jurisdiction to attribute blame or exonerate either. That's a civil matter. If they feel their mother died as a result of negligence or there were omissions in care, fault given, to blame, they cannot really use an inquest to do that."
At a Coroner's court nobody is found guilty or innocent and no criminal or civil liability is determined. The sole function is to determine how someone died.
Unusually among legal officers in this country, Coroners have the freedom to comment and give opinions on the issues that arise during inquest. Eleanor Fitzgerald and Terrence Casey have regularly expressed strong views on issues like road safety and rural isolation, and in Terrence’s case particularly, suicide;
"We've been afraid to speak about suicide for so many years. People didn't talk about it. It wasn't reported in the papers and suicide was becoming more prevalent. A couple of years back, I had ten suicides in one sitting which is crazy. The more you talk about it, the less stigma is attached to it." Terrence goes on, "Before I became a Coroner, I never realised how serious a problem is was. Now I know how serious a problem it is. I know there's a problem which has to be tackled. The same way road traffic accidents were tackled by the road safety authority. They have reduced their figures massively over the years. The amount of research and the amount of money and prevention put in for suicide is minimal compared to it."
While the role of Coroner will always be associated with tragedy and finding the cause of death, the process overseen by the office of the Coroner helps to provide those left behind a chance to learn the truth about their loss.
Documentary on One: Cause of Death, RTE Radio 1, Saturday 16th September @ 2.00pm, repeated Sunday 17th September @7.00pm. Listen to more Documentary On One productions here.