Stardust families still waiting for clarity on legal aid

The inquest into the death of 48 people at the nightclub was granted in September 2019. The bulk of the work has not commenced due to ongoing funding issues.
Stardust families still waiting for clarity on legal aid

Tributes to the 48 victims of the Valentine's Day,  1981 Stardust nightclub fire in Dublin. File Picture.

The Department of Justice has not replied to pleas from the Stardust victims and families four weeks after it was found that some did not qualify for legal aid.

An email from Phoenix Law, which represents the majority of families, seen by the Irish Examiner, dated yesterday, notes that despite urgent correspondence sought four weeks ago from Minister Helen McEntee's office, no reply has been received.

Solicitor Darragh Mackin wrote to the Department of Justice on March 24 outlining the issue, stating: "The further delay in the ensuring of funding for representation for the next of kin continues to be the sole reason for the continued impasse and delay the inquest currently faces.

"We need not repeat the past failings by the State in ensuring an effective and thorough investigation into Ireland’s worst atrocity. These failings will be forever compounded if the families are treated differently and unequally by virtue of their disposal income or capital."

A video hearing for the inquest held on March 24 heard from Mr Mackin, who represents 42 of the families. He said his firm has been involved in a game of "snakes and ladders" with the Department of Justice over access to legal aid for families, which had delayed the inquest by six months.

Mr Mackin said at the time that further delay was now inevitable as it has further transpired that some families do not qualify for legal aid.

"We have a situation whereby some qualify for legal aid funding and some do not, by virtue of the fact that they earn in excess of the threshold, which I should say is a very, very low threshold," Mr Mackin said.

Mr Mackin said there was a section within the legal aid legislation that consideration could be given to the wavering of the financial eligibility criteria in extraordinary circumstances at the Legal Aid Board's discretion.

The act notes the Justice Minister would make regulations to govern how that discretion is to be exercised, however, the regulations have never been enacted.

"The legal aid board retains discretion, but they have absolutely no guidance as to how that discretion should be exercised," he added.

The Stardust inquest into the death of 48 people at a nightclub was granted in September 2019. The bulk of the inquest has not commenced due to the ongoing funding issues.

The Department of Justice said: "The department is actively investigating the position and engaging with the Attorney General's Office to explore possible mechanisms to provide for legal aid to the very small number of families who do not meet the financial eligibility requirements under the act and expects to be in a position to provide more information shortly."

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