THE PROPOSAL by the Minister for Justice, Mr Michael McDowell to introduce a new Coroners’ Bill which will be see penalties of up to 12 months in prison for non-appearances at inquests has been welcomed by the Coroner for North Mayo, Dr Eleanor Fitzgerald.
The current penalty for a person who fails to answer an order from a coroner to attend at an inquest is only £5 and dates back to the 1962 Coroners’ Act. Minister McDowell proposes that a financial penalty of €3,000 and a 12-month prison sentence be imposed against a person who fails to attend.
The most high-profile inquest absentee in Mayo in recent years was the alternative healer, Mineke Kamper who failed to attend at the inquest of Mr Paul Howie, who died from throat cancer in 2003. Mr Howie had been treated by Ms Kamper and she told him not to take conventional medicine as the treatments she prescribed would not work if he did.
“In situations like the case of Mineke Kamper not turning up, the penalties were not enough to encourage her to come,” saud Dr Fitzgerald. “Doctors are accountable to the public through the medical council while the alternative healers are not. If they have been involved in treating patients who have died they should be held to the same accountability as the medical profession.”
Dr Fitzgerald said in the case of unnatural or violent death it was very important that everyone who gave a statement turns up at the inquest to be questioned and their evidence accepted. She said this was vital in giving a true verdict, but in some cases it was difficult for people to get off work and it was an impediment in some cases.
The new act will give the coroner extra powers to order a warrant to be issued against a person who does not appear at an inquest and Dr Fitzgerald believes these orders will be taken seriously and endorsed.
The decision taken by Minister McDowell was also welcomed by the former Fine Gael Spokesperson on Justice, Senator Jim Higgins, who said that too many were taking advantage of the old penalty in order not to appear at the inquests.