Paul Hosford: Grief prolonged at understaffed Cork Coroners' Court 

The Dáil heard earlier this month there are two staff in Cork compared to 24 in Dublin, despite having 25% as many cases
Paul Hosford: Grief prolonged at understaffed Cork Coroners' Court 

Evan Gearns holding a picture of his deceased brother Andrew. He is not looking for blame to be apportioned. He simply wants his family to have answers in a reasonable timeframe. Photo: David Keane

When Andrew Gearns died last October, his family was denied a proper funeral by Covid restrictions.

The nature of his death by suicide in Cork Prison means an inquest into Andrew's death is required but a year and a fortnight later, his family has yet to hear when that might happen. The father-of-two's family has waited through a full year and all that it brings without the ability to bring closure to the case.

That closure is vital to us all on a human level. While grieving is not easy with it, it is often impossible without. How can you grieve when you don't have basic answers about the circumstances?

As his brother Evan points out, there are other families across the country in this position for whom closure is being delayed in the most tragic of cases. It appears that this is through no fault of the Cork Coroners' Court, which is drastically understaffed. 

The Dáil heard earlier this month there are two staff in Cork compared to 24 in Dublin, despite having 25% as many cases. As Sinn Féin TD Donnchadh O Laoighaire put it: "They cannot keep up. How could they possibly keep up?"

Speaking to Evan, it is clear that he is not on a crusade to pin his brother's death on anyone. He is not looking for blame to be apportioned. He simply wants his family to have answers in a reasonable timeframe. He is asking the same question that many in Ireland who run up against the system do. 

Why do we have to fight for this? Is an inquest hearing within a year or possibly 18 months not a fair expectation in a developed country?

There is no question that Covid has impacted all sectors of society. It is understood that the courtroom usually reserved for the coroner is now being used for office space to facilitate social distancing, but 20 months into this crisis, it is fair to ask why no contingency has been put in place? Why has no minimum standard for the timeframe available to families been agreed?

Aside from the logistics, there is a human cost here, too. Evan Gearns says his major concern is that his mother would have to re-experience the trauma of losing Andrew some three years down the line, forcing her to re-live the loss of her son at a time when she might be in a different stage of her grief.

The Department of Justice says coroners are "independent quasi-judicial officeholders whose core function is to investigate sudden and unexplained deaths so that a death certificate can be issued" but while that is, of course, true, it ignores how inquests are viewed by families, who use them for closure, answers and healing, despite their issues.

Writing in this paper in April, Professor Phil Scraton, best known for his investigative research into the 1989 Hillsborough disaster, talked about the need to overhaul our coronial system.

"It is 21 years since an influential, independent working group published detailed findings recommending root and branch reform of Ireland’s coronial system. ‘Radical reform and major reconfiguration’, delivered over two decades by a ‘clear strategy for change’ were considered imperative," he wrote.

The research by Professor Scraton and the Irish Council for Civil Liberties found that no significant reform has occurred in policies or practices regarding death investigation or inquests.

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