Pathology debacle: How one-man-show turned into a circus

Marie Cassidy

It is 20 years since the decision was taken to expand Dr John Harbison’s State Pathologist’s Office but almost immediately it looked like the one-man-show could turn into a circus.

The creation of a new post of deputy state pathologist was sanctioned in 1993 but not filled until 1995 when it was given on a temporarily basis to Dr Margot Bolster who concentrated on Munster where she was based.

But when it came to making the post permanent, she was told she’d have to move to Dublin — and presumably commute to Munster — which made no sense.

In frustration at the failure to resolve the issue, she resigned in 1996 and it was 1998 before Dr Harbison got his deputy — Dr Marie Cassidy — although after pleas by Dr Harbison, Dr Bolster did provide, as she continues to do, part-time assistance.

By then, he had gone public on the neglect of the office and the failure of any government department to take responsibility for its planning and resources, saying: “It appears at the moment to be just an awkward file.”

Staff levels improved for a while but in 2003, Dr Harbison retired and the office was back to just one full-time pathologist, Dr Cassidy, with Dr Bolster part-time in Munster and another part-timer, Dr Declan Gilsenan in the midlands.

It took a year for Dr Harbison’s job to be filled — with the promotion of Dr Cassidy who in turn was replaced by a new deputy, Dr Michael Curtis.

But in the next three years, murders and suspected homicides soared by 33% and in 2006, the decision was taken to create a second full-time deputy post which went to Dr Gilsenan.

He in turn left in 2009 to be replaced by Dr Khalid Jaber. With Dr Jaber’s sudden departure, the office is now back to two full-timers, Dr Cassidy and Dr Curtis, with Dr Bolster in Munster.

The number of cases have returned from their mid-2000s high back to 190-200 annually but given the scrutiny now on every piece of evidence gathered and every opinion expressed by the pathologists, the workload remains high.

According to Department of Justice figures, Dr Cassidy and her deputies have salaries of €150,000-199,000 and the office has an operating budget of just under €1 million.

But it still doesn’t have a proper physical office. Another decision made in 1993 was that it would be moved from its cramped accommodation in Trinity College to a new facility with full laboratory suite to be built at Beaumont Hospital. It did move but only to temporary accommodation at the Dublin Fire Brigade Training Centre in Marino. Work eventually began on a new facility in Marino in 2010 and it was due to be open by the end of 2011 but it was a joint private-public venture and the private developer went bust after €2.8 million had been spent on the project.

There are now plans to move the office into the old Whitehall Garda Station, pending refurbishment.


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