Up to 30 care homes could face criminal investigation depending on results of a Garda inquiry into the death of a woman in a residential home during the Covid-19 pandemic in 2021.
Gardaí are examining the care received by the woman in a Co Cork home in the period leading up to her death which occurred during one of the worst periods of the pandemic.
Sources have confirmed to The Irish Times the case is being investigated as potential gross negligence manslaughter.
The care home in question saw a large number of fatalities in the first 18 months of the pandemic which began in early 2020.
The Irish Times understands the investigation has been ongoing for a significant period of time and that a large number of interviews have taken place, including with relatives and care home staff.
A file on the case is due to go to the office of the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) very shortly and it will make a final decision on what, if any, charges are brought.
The evidential bar for proving gross negligence manslaughter is very high. Prosecutors must prove the defendant owed a duty of care to the deceased, that negligent treatment occurred and that negligence was of a very high degree and posed an obvious and severe risk of harm.
The maximum sentence for individuals is life imprisonment or an unlimited fine. Companies can also be charged with the offence, in which case a fine can be imposed on conviction.
The case is being treated by gardaí as a test case and the decision by the DPP will likely dictate the progress of similar criminal complaints by families of relatives who died in care homes during the pandemic.
One in three of all Covid-19 deaths in the first two years of the pandemic occurred in nursing homes and other residential institutions.
Majella Beattie, the founder of advocacy group Care Champions, said her group is supporting various families who have made preliminary complaints to the Garda and whose cases are on hold pending the result of the current investigation.
Criminal complaints relating to about 30 care homes around the country may proceed if charges are preferred in the Co Cork case, she said.
One man who lost a relative following alleged substandard care said he made a Garda complaint at the end of 2021 and was told by gardaí “this was new ground for them”.
A Garda spokesman said “deaths in residential homes are investigated individually” and that when there is evidence of criminality “files may be prepared for the Director of Public Prosecutions”.
He said it is impossible to provide national figures on the number of such investigation as there is no “nationwide, overarching investigation”.
The HSE and individual care home operators are also facing dozens of civil wrongful death cases from families of deceased relatives relating to the care provided during the pandemic.
Just under 60 claims have been lodged against the HSE relating to deaths in residential units.
Some 43 of these relate to private care homes and 16 relate to acute hospitals or community settings, according to a breakdown from the State Claims Agency.