High Court challenge aimed at proposed Stardust inquest not ready to be heard

Former club manager brought action as new hearing could leave him open to verdict of unlawful killing

A High Court judge has said a legal action brought by former Stardust manager Eamon Butterly, aimed at preventing a new inquest into the fatal fire from making him a target for a verdict of unlawful killing, is not yet ready for hearing.

Mr Justice Charles Meenan said on Tuesday that while he is acutely aware of the urgency of Mr Butterly’s claim that the inquest could wrongfully make him a target for a verdict of unlawful killing, he cannot at this stage fix a date for the hearing of the challenge.

The judge made his remarks after being informed that pre-trial exchanges of certain legal documents and submissions relevant to the action have yet to take place. Once those exchanges are completed, the judge said the court would fix a hearing date.

Mr Butterly and his family owned the Artane nightclub when fire broke out in February 1981, leading to 48 deaths and 128 people being injured. There were several inquiries over the years, including inquests in 1982, which recorded deaths in accordance with the medical evidence.

Following a long campaign by the families of those who died in the blaze the government in 2019 directed the holding of fresh inquests due to an “insufficiency of inquiry as to how the deaths occurred namely a failure to sufficiently consider those of the surrounding circumstances that concern the cause or causes of the fire”.

Coroner’s role

Last February the High Court granted Mr Butterly permission to bring judicial review proceedings against Dublin District Coroner Dr Myra Cullinane, the Minister for Justice and the Attorney General.

Mr Butterly seeks an order prohibiting the coroner from conducting the inquests in a manner which involves an investigation or consideration of a possible verdict of unlawful killing.

He also seeks an order quashing the coroner’s decision to refuse to rule out an unlawful killing verdict.

He seeks declarations including an unlawful killing verdict is not one that may be lawfully returned under the Coroners Acts.

He seeks a declaration that the coroner’s discretion to consider the circumstances in which a death occurred or to make findings in relation to the same is not unlimited and can only be considered in accordance with law.

If an unlawful killing verdict is available, he seeks declaration that there has been a failure to make any provision for him to apply for legal aid to participate in the inquests or for him to apply for his costs, in breach of fair procedures and natural justice.

Mr Butterly claims the coroner has refused to rule out the possibility that a jury can bring in a verdict of unlawful killing despite submissions he made to her arguing against this.

The coroner was directed to hold the new inquests and she conducted pre-inquest hearings during which the question of whether a jury could reach a verdict of unlawful killing became an issue.

She refused to rule out the question of a verdict of unlawful killing, it is claimed.

Application opposition

The families of the 47 deceased represented before the Stardust Inquest, the Garda Commissioner, Dublin City Council and Patricia Kennedy, mother of Marie Kennedy, are notice parties in the case.

Both the coroner and the victim’s families oppose Mr Butterly’s application.

Their arguments against his action include that the bringing of proceedings over a possible finding by the inquest was “premature”.

During Tuesday’s brief hearing the court was told by counsel for the coroner Simon Mills SC that it was hoped that the inquest can commence in September.

In reply to a concern raised by the judge, counsel said his client and lawyers for the notice parties had been working together to avoid a duplication of submissions being made during the hearing and that the case can be heard within two days.

The judge had said he did not want the hearing “unnecessarily lengthened” by parties “essentially saying the same thing.”

The judge said he was hopeful that the case can be heard and determined before the legal year concludes at the end of July.

The judge, after making directions in regards to the exchange of submissions, adjourned the matter for mention to a date in early June.