State pathology facility opened in 2017 ‘not fit for purpose’

Limited space in converted garda station means bodies are being stored in undertakers

The facility used by the Office of the State Pathologist which opened five years ago in a converted Dublin Garda station is already unfit for purpose, according to its users.

The Dublin facility’s inadequacies are slowing down the processing of cases and there is a lack of storage space for bodies, meaning some remains have to be stored in a local undertakers, staff said.

Concerns were also raised about the facility’s ability to cope with mass fatality incidents, which staff argued should be expected “as a certainty rather than a possibility.” In such an event it is feared the facility would be quickly overwhelmed.

Staff also complained it is unsuitable for pathology work involving children, which forms a significant portion of their work.

The Office of the State Pathologist (OSP) is responsible for examining sudden or suspicious deaths. The new facility opened in 2017 following the conversion of Whitehall Garda station.

Pathologists had previously been working in temporary Portacabins in Marino which had become completely inadequate.

The Whitehall project, which cost €3.39 million, was a compromise. The original plan was to construct a purpose built facility, complete with a dedicated coroners court, in Marino at much greater cost.

According to an evaluation report released by the Department of Justice the Whitehall facility has provided good value for money but is now viewed as unfit for purpose by staff.

The volume of cases handled by the facility has increased significantly since it opened, from 676 in 2016 to 1,227 in 2021. This is the result of population growth, the Covid-19 pandemic and hospitals no longer performing postmortems on behalf of the coroner.

The complexity of cases has also increased. Many cases require more specialised examinations and for high numbers of gardaí and external experts to be present, which is putting pressure on space in the facility.

The lifting of remains on to the autopsy table has to be carried out manually as there are no hoists and bodies undergoing forensic post mortems must be brought through the non-forensic room which disrupts its work.

The changing rooms are located in a different part of the facility, meaning staff have to walk through the building in possibly contaminated scrubs to clean up and change.

A lack of office space means blood and tissue samples have to be transferred to gardaí in public or staff areas.

The facility has no CT scanner which could reduce the number of “invasive autopsies” which must be carried out. The OSP has to rely on the goodwill of the Mater hospital in using their CT scanner.

There is also no room to provide access to a grief counsellor or social worker for staff and families of the deceased and many lab services have to be conducted elsewhere.

Insufficient parking means Garda cars are parked on the footpath outside which has “the potential to generate unwanted attention to the facility.”

The room used by families to identify deceased is only big enough for two people, something which is particularly difficult in cases involving children, it said. Additionally, it is possible for families to see undertakers collecting or delivering bodies which can be “stressful and upsetting”.

Talks have begun concerning moving the facility so it adjoins a big hospital. However, these are understood to be in the very early stages.

Conor Gallagher

Conor Gallagher

Conor Gallagher is Crime Correspondent of The Irish Times