The latest pre-inquest hearing for the victims of the Stardust fire took place this afternoon.
THE FRESH INQUESTS into the deaths of 48 people in the 1981 Stardust tragedy have been hit by a further delay, a court has heard.
At a pre-inquest hearing today led by Dublin city coroner Dr Myra Cullinane, it heard that this delay is due to the fact that some of the bereaved families are eligible for legal aid to be represented at the hearing but others are not.
“We’ve effectively ended up right back at the start,” Darragh Mackin, a solicitor who represents most of the families, said today.
“[This is] after six months was spent in a game of snakes and ladders. It’s deeply regrettable.”
The Minister for Justice Helen McEntee said this evening that she will seek to remedy the situation quickly by bringing new regulations around legal aid into effect.
Fresh inquests into the deaths of those who died in the Valentine’s disco fire of 1981 were first ordered in September 2019, following a sustained campaign by families of those who lost loved ones in the tragedy.
It had been hoped that the inquests, which are to be held in the RDS in Dublin, could get under way early this year but this latest development could delay proceedings even further.
Mackin explained that discussions had been ongoing for a number of months with the Department of Justice to try to resolve the issue that would release funding to instruct barristers acting on behalf of the families.
He previously said that the usual process for an inquest would be for legal counsel to receive a fee for each deceased person who is represented at an inquest hearing.
Mackin said that because of the scale of these inquests, this would escalate legal costs significantly and that his team had made a proposal to the the Department of Justice in this regard that would cost less than the usual system.
Last month, it had appeared that this issue was solved after the Department directed the Legal Aid Board to process applications from each family member to allow the inquests to proceed.
However, the pre-inquest hearing heard today that this had only led to further delays.
“At the outset, the context of the delay is that engagement was ongoing with the Department of Justice to bring about an exceptionality scheme to try and cater for the exceptional nature of this inquest,” Mackin said.
“Those discussions lasted six months… we’re right back at the start where families have to apply individually for legal aid funding.”
He said that a number of families would have earnings or capital that would mean they fall outside the eligiblity criteria for legal aid.
Mackin said: “Some qualify for legal aid funding, and some do not… We have a situation now where there’s further inequality whereby certain family members will not be entitled to funding for representations.”
He said that his team corresponded with the Legal Aid Board, and directed them to legislation from 1995 that contains a provision whereby the Legal Aid Board could provide legal aid “without reference to his or her financial resources”.
Under the Civil Legal Aid Act 1995, the Minister for Justice could bring in regulations to specify instances where the Legal Aid Board could waive this financial requirement.
However, such regulations have not yet been enacted over 25 years since this legislation was introduced, Mackin said.
“We’re left in the hands of further delay because of regulations that should have been brought in years ago,” he said.
Mackin added: “On foot of that, it’s become clear that this is a further bump in the road. It’s deeply regrettable.”
The Department of Justice told The Journal that the Minister is aware of the difficulties, and has asked the Attorney General’s office and the Office of Parliamentary Counsel to arrange for the “urgent” drafting of new regulations under the Civil Legal Act 1995.
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“The Minister hopes to be in a position to bring regulations into effect as soon as possible, and would reiterate her commitment to resolving these matters for the benefit of the Stardust families,” a spokesperson for the Department of Justice said.
In response, coroner Dr Myra Cullinane said she hoped the issue could be resolved “as soon as is practical”.
She outlined how a significant amount of work has been ongoing from the inquests team in recent months.
“Coroner’s experts have been instructed in the areas of fire investigation, forensic pathology and forensic toxicology,” she said.
She said a significant amount of documentation would be provided to all of the interested parties, including files from Dublin City Council, the Department of Justice and An Garda Síochána.
In the case of the gardaí, Dr Cullinane said that privilege had been asserted over a number of documents provided. Details on this would be provided to the parties soon, she said.
She said that, in light of Mackin’s update, she was “loathe to list” a specific date for the next pre-inquest hearing as it was not yet clear when all parties would have their appropriate legal advice.
Dr Cullinane added: “Since last pre-inquest hearing [in November], the deaths of a number of members of the bereaved families have occurred. I wish to extend the condolences of the court to those families.”