Relatives of the victims of the Stardust fire are being means tested for legal aid for the forthcoming inquests, which is causing “huge hurt” and risks creating division among families, the Seanad has been told.
Sinn Féin Senator Lynn Boylan highlighted the concerns of families, a number of whom demonstrated outside Leinster House on Monday in protest over the means testing and the delay in funding of legal aid for families. The Government pledged €8.2 million in funding for the inquests in Budget 2021.
The inquests into the deaths of 48 young people in the Stardust ballroom in Artane, in the early hours of the February 14th, 1981, are due to take place at the RDS in Dublin later this year and are expected to last several months.
Ms Boylan said the families "have waited 40 years for justice and now they're being asked for PPS numbers, for bank statements, for payslips. They're being asked what car they drive".
The Seanad was told the Minister for Justice Helen McEntee “wants to ensure appropriate legal support will be provided regardless of the means of the families involved” while “ensuring the best value for the public from the process”.
Minister of State Frankie Feighan, speaking for Ms McEntee, said the Department of Justice, liaising with the Attorney General's office was exploring "possible mechanisms to provide for legal aid for the very small number of families who do not meet the financial eligibility requirements under the act".
It was being “actively worked on” but might require new regulations. Mr Feighan said there would be a response on the matter “shortly” which would allow the inquests to start a few weeks after that.
Ms Boylan asked what “shortly” meant. “Is it days, weeks or months? We’ve already lost a number of relatives of the Stardust victims in the last year,” she said.
She added that it was inappropriate that families were being asked for their financial details “given the significance of this inquest, given the 40 years they’ve had to wait”.
The Dublin Senator said the families had been told in relation to the inquest that there would be “no barriers to them accessing justice”. That, she said, should apply to all of the families. “They need to be treated equally, and they shouldn’t be means tested.”
Mr Feighan said he would seek to clarify with the department what was meant by the term “shortly”.
The families warned at the weekend that they will seek a judicial review of the failure of the Department of Justice to provide legal aid for the inquests, if the matter is not resolved within 21 days.
Lawyers for the relatives said the families’ human rights are being breached by the ongoing delay and they would make an application under the European Convention on Human Rights if the matter is not resolved.
Mr Feighan said the department wanted to provide “maximum support” to the families. He added that it had gone further than the legislation “by committing to make making payments to legal professionals, secured by the families, one month in arrears, rather than after tribunals, to minimise any concerns that the professionals may have”.