Minister warns campaigners labs could walk away from CervicalCheck tribunal

Donnelly tells 221 Plus group of constitutional challenges to making changes sought

Vicky Phelan: seeking changes to the planned CervicalCheck tribunal. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw/The Irish Times

Vicky Phelan: seeking changes to the planned CervicalCheck tribunal. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw/The Irish Times

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Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly has warned women affected by the CervicalCheck controversy that laboratories could walk away from a planned tribunal if he makes certain changes asked for by the women.

Mr Donnelly also told the 221 plus group that designated members of the tribunal may leave because of delays in its establishment.

The tribunal was due to commence its work last month but, in the face of objections from some victims, including campaigner Vicky Phelan, the Government agreed to postpone the start date in the hope that their concerns can be met.

The group has concerns about the statute of limitations and has also asked that applicants to the tribunal who receive an award be allowed to return to the tribunal should they suffer a recurrence of their cancer.

In a letter sent to the group on November 8th, Mr Donnelly said that he believed it was “important to be clear on what I believe to be our shared goal”.

“As I said, the tribunal is now paused, at your request. I am aware that continuing delays in getting it up-and-running create a situation where few – if any – of your members can have their claims dealt with, particularly given the difficulties in having hearings proceed in the courts at present.

“At the same time, members-designate of the tribunal have been taken from the courts and are eager to get started. As you know, during the previous delay in commencing the tribunal due to Covid, two of the three members took up other roles. I have a concern that if there is another significant delay, some of the current members might also have to be released back to the courts.”

He said there were “constitutional” challenges to making changes asked for by the group.

On the issue of recurrence, he said: “For the tribunal to work, it must follow the process of the High Court. I am being guided by the very clear advice of the Attorney General.

“I have taken advice from several expert sources and I believe that a provision that would expand the ability of the tribunal to make awards beyond how the High Court operates would cause the laboratories to withdraw from the process, meaning that no cases could proceed at the tribunal.”

On the issue of the statute of limitations, Mr Donnelly said if it were amended “it would almost certainly lead to the withdrawal of the labs from the tribunal, again meaning that no claims would be heard in that forum.

“I take on board your view that the issues in relation to the statute are quite simple; but it is unfortunately the case that the remedies are not as simple as is suggested.

“I have taken extensive legal advice and, for the tribunal to work, the laboratories must be kept involved.”

‘Time is up’

In a letter sent yesterday, the 221 plus group told the Minister that “time is up” to resolve issues around the planned new tribunal.

The group said they fear the Government is “playing politics” on the issue and is unwilling to address the concerns of the women.

“As we see it, time is up and we are now setting about communicating to our members to that effect which we will do before the weekend. If there is any basis in fact to show otherwise before we do so we would welcome seeing it.

“As we have now stated on a number of occasions 221 plus has no basis on which to express confidence in the tribunal as proposed at this point.”