Cork coroner says his office cannot fulfil statutory duties due to lack of staff

Philip Comyn warned Cork City Council of 'a huge backlog of inquests' and said his office is at 'breaking point'
Cork coroner says his office cannot fulfil statutory duties due to lack of staff

In correspondence released under FOI, Cork City Coroner Philip Comyn told the local council of the 'huge strain' on his staff. File picture: Dan Linehan

Cork City’s coroner has claimed he cannot fulfil his statutory duties and his team’s health and safety are at risk because of a lack of staff.

Philip Comyn has repeatedly raised his concerns with Cork City Council about the resourcing of his office.

The office has two staff — one of whom is based in City Hall. The Cork City Coroner’s office is the only full-time one in the State outside of Dublin. The Dublin coroner’s office has approximately 20 staff.

In a business case Mr Comyn submitted to the council in early 2019, he recommended employing six additional full-time staff equivalents by the end of the second quarter of the year.

However, there have been no additional full-time staff allocated to the office since then. Two support staff are made available as required, according to the city council. A deputy city coroner has also been appointed in recent months.

On March 8, Mr Comyn told the council that he was unable to fulfil his statutory duties as coroner as a result of “sustained absence of the level of resource required by my office to fulfil the roles and obligations set out in the Coroners Act”.

“Any breach of these statutory obligations is a direct consequence of not having adequate staffing levels within my office to deal with the range and volume of duties I am expected to carry out. It also affects the independence of my office.

The situation has escalated to the point where I now wish to advise you that a serious health and safety at work issue has resulted for me and my staff as we continue to experience very difficult working conditions. 

He said he has received a number of complaints from staff about their ability to work safely “in the current very difficult climate for which I hold the City Council responsible”.

“I am placing you on formal notice that I too endorse their views,” he added.

Mr Comyn said the onset of Covid-19 and the unavailability of courtroom space “have placed additional strain on my office which was already at breaking point”.

"This has resulted in a huge backlog of inquests which will continue to grow despite the best efforts of my staff, one of whom is now working at least one day a week overtime to keep things going,” he said. 

“This present situation has placed huge strain on my staff and raises issues of serious concern from a health and safety perspective.”

In May 2019, he told the council that he regretfully could not assist Prof Ella Arensman of the National Suicide Research Foundation in a project she was undertaking to identify suicide blackspots along the River Lee.

He wrote: “The issue of suicide and ways of preventing it are matters which we take very seriously in this office.” 

The correspondence was released to the Irish Examiner under the Freedom of Information Act.

Cork City Council wrote to Mr Comyn on October 24, and said the council has “on a number of occasions engaged with your office through our ICT section in an attempt to streamline processes to avoid duplication and delay”.

It also advised him against an intention expressed on a number of occasions by him to hire staff and seek reimbursement from the council for their salaries.

The council continued that any such move without prior agreement with the local authority would mean that Cork City Council could not accept any liability for such costs.

Public information officer with the Coroners Society, Patrick O’Connor, said that resources is a significant issue in Cork as well as some other districts, including Limerick and Galway.

He said there are additional requirements on coroners in recent years including the reporting of Covid deaths, and the furnishing of autopsy reports to families when requested.

He added: “The workload of coroners has increased by 40 to 50% over the last five to 10 years.”

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