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A Death in Hospital

The Vatican is an uncivilised place. A place is uncivilised if a person may die and the cause of death remains unexplained. This happened on the death, in the Vatican, of Albino Luciani, Pope John Paul I, in 1978.

He was Pope for one month.

What if he had died in Ireland?

Depending on the circumstances there would be an inquest. An inquest is an inquiry by a coroner into the causes and circumstances of certain deaths. A death such as that of the Pope in 1978 would certainly, in Ireland, require an inquest and a post mortem medical examination.

The procuring of a coroner’s inquiry is two-fold. There is an obligation on certain people to report the death to the coroner. Then there is the obligation on the coroner to have an inquest. Even where there may not be an obligation on the coroner he frequently has an option to have one.

The general thrust of the law is to relieve the coroner of the obligation, if a person dies of an illness following treatment, by a medical practitioner, for not less than one month prior to death from that illness.

Section 17 of the Coroner’s Act 1962 states as follows:

“17.—Subject to the provisions of this Act, where a coroner is informed that the body of a deceased person is lying within his district, it shall be the duty of the coroner to hold an inquest in relation to the death of that person if he is of opinion that the death may have occurred in a violent or unnatural manner, or suddenly and from unknown causes or in a place or in circumstances which, under provisions in that behalf contained in any other enactment, require that an inquest should be held.”

This is a bit vague and woolly. Things get a bit more interesting with the next Section, Section 18.

It states:

“(4) Every medical practitioner, registrar of deaths or funeral undertaker and every occupier of a house or mobile dwelling, and every person in charge of any institution or premises, in which a deceased person was residing at the time of his death, who has reason to believe that the deceased person died, either directly or indirectly, as a result of violence or misadventure or by unfair means, or as a result of negligence or misconduct or malpractice on the part of others, or from any cause other than natural illness or disease for which lie [sic] had been seen and treated by a registered medical practitioner within one month before his death, or in such circumstances as may require investigation (including death as the result of the administration of an anaesthetic), shall immediately notify the coroner within whose district the body of the deceased person is lying of the facts and circumstances relating to the death.”

Anaesthetic? What’s that about?

Well, it would also be uncivilised if the members of the medical profession were to be able to cover up their negligence, or worse. So, oddly enough, a death in a hospital is more likely to occur in circumstances requiring notification to the coroner than if the death occurred in the home of the deceased person.

The notification obligation is quite extensive. There is an obligation under the Civil Registration Act 2004 to notify the Registrar (“an tArd-Chláraitheoir.”) (who is not the coroner) of the death. If you discover a dead body you are legally obliged to report finding it. The fact that the enforcement of this obligation is weak is unlikely to cause practical problems. Few people would fail to report such a thing; if they admit such a failure the investigation is more likely to focus on their role in the death than in the failure to report it.