The controversy about the holding of suicide inquests

The  controversy  about the holding of suicide inquests is raised again by Barry Egan  in an interview with a mother of a young boy who died by suicide on the 27th December 2012 and printed by the Sunday Independent on the 13/07/2014.

In November 2013,  I wrote an article about the procedures  surrounding  inquests  held after someone has died by suicide and it appeared in many papers.  People affected  contacted me after the publication and I decided to write to all the Coroners in Ireland to see if some changes could be made as to how an inquest into death by suicide could be made more compassionate and family friendly.

There should be  no  whiff of criminality surrounding this type of inquest, as suicide has been decriminalised since July 1993.   A colleague and myself  did write to every Coroner in February of 2014. We had many replies from Coroners,  some  understanding the predicament for families, others saying that what was written did not happen in their jurisdiction and that they were well aware of the problems that surrounded the inquest for family members.  But on reading the interview with the lady, who may be high profile,  but felt the same way as all other families, speak about the ordeal of being at an inquest into her young son’s death, the subject has again risen as to what it is we could do to alleviate the upset  and trauma suffered to accommodate the requirements of the law.

Writing about the procedure in the last article I pointed up issues that could be changed without interfering with the basic process. The fact that the first contact with a family about the inquest is usually with the gardai   informing the family of the time and place,   gives a sense of criminality to the process. The place is usually in the courthouse or a hotel room,  neither of which allows for privacy,  and families have continued to say so.  The time span between the death and the inquest may be as long as 18 months.  Wherever the inquest is held,  it is a public event with a Coroner (acting as a judge), a  jury in some cases, uniformed  gardai,  journalists, the general public,  the witnesses called to give evidence, (which may be the first time that families will become aware of other facts) as well as members of the bereaved family, if they so wish to attend. This is a similar scenario as to what happens in any courtroom.  It is all in the public domain, a harsh reality for a parent or a loved one to be present to hear and  witness  perhaps  unknown  facts  about a close family member. The presence of many other people, some strangers, witnessing their grief and often fear, as to how their loved one died and what facts did others know that they were unaware of.  A  daunting  scenario.

Since suicide was decriminalised in July, 1993,  surely  twenty years on,  we should have found a way that families are not further traumatised by the inquest system, which is a requirement of our laws. There are no legal barriers to changing how the inquest is carried out, it is there to establish “the who, when, where and how” of unexplained deaths. The Act which  governs  the Coroner’s  Court  was established in 1962 and has not been reviewed since. The  Coroner’s  Court  is an independent office of the state and  a report published in 2000  had  more than 100  recommendations made but  little has changed. That report stated that rules should be capable of being amended and that changes in the work practice of Coroners are inevitable as the complexity and demands of modern society increase. These statements would appear to give a mandate to those in charge to change the system as they would see fit. Why don’t they?

The  Coroners  that made contact after receiving the letter are compassionate and understanding of the problems encountered. The lady in question did say that the Coroner’s Office could not have been nicer, but the fact that it was reported in every single newspaper the following day was hurtful and the inquest itself was very difficult.    The inquest did not answer any of the questions about the things she wanted to know about her son’s death and she wondered what public service was achieved by putting it into the public domain.

Every day in this country we have people who die by suicide and after the funeral is over they will face into an inquest at some stage. Surely the authorities that are in charge, and it is the County Manager in every county who pays for the service and could decide if he so wished the place where suicide inquests are held. In light of all we know and hear from those who have gone through the system is it not time to find a venue where public access may be difficult for onlookers and others not involved in the case, in which this most painful of events must be relived for the family involved?  In every town we have places that could be used to give privacy to those who grieve and perhaps have a support system in place to help people at a time of unimaginable pain. Some Coroners have set up people to be there to meet and explain the procedure and offer comfort but this is not widespread.

We as a society must raise our voice and stand up for people who are suffering what is an excruciating pain, who  remain silent because of the stigma and horror of what they have been through, and ask those who have the power to provide a place where dignity and privacy can be had for those who appear before,  what to them is a court of law.  All we need is for people who can make the change to have the courage and empathy  to do so. I know the Coroners would be amenable to this as they have said so, as often they themselves are deeply upset by what they reside over.

So why must we continue to read about people,  who should be accommodated by the State,  that must endure such a public outing of the trauma and deep despair they suffer in the aftermath of suicide. We can and should make other arrangements for this public hearing, that opens up  further  wounds  endured  by families, and give them the respect and support that they need at this time of unimaginable pain and distress.

In these times we never know whose door will be knocked on next, and if our own, I should hope that the necessary supports that could ease the burden of appearing for an inquest be considered and put in place without further delay right across every jurisdiction.


Peg Hanafin, Msc. Rehab/Couns. Psych.