CervicalCheck tribunal will be ‘step into the unknown,’ Dáil told

Bill aims to set up alternative system for dealing with claims arising from controversy

Ruth Morrissey, a terminally ill woman with cervical cancer was awarded  €2.1m in damages which the State is now appealing. File photograph: Dave Meehan

Ruth Morrissey, a terminally ill woman with cervical cancer was awarded €2.1m in damages which the State is now appealing. File photograph: Dave Meehan

 

A tribunal to hear cases and determine awards arising from the CervicalCheck screening controversy “will be a step into the unknown”, the Dáil has heard.

Fianna Fáil health spokesman Stephen Donnelly said that nothing of its kind has been established before.

He was speaking as the Cervical Check Tribunal Bill was introduced in the Dáil.

The legislation aims to set up an alternative system for dealing with claims arising from the CervicalCheck controversy in which more than 221 women who were not told of an audit on their smear tests.

They had developed cervical cancer, after which an audit of their earlier tests was carried out. While the tribunal is an alternative to the courts, women are not prohibited from going through the courts process.

The tribunal’s decisions will have to be confirmed by the High Court and be subject to a right of appeal to the court.

Mr Donnelly said the results for those involved could be mixed but “we also believe that this process has the potential to benefit the women involved, to make the experience less traumatic, and quicker”.

But he said it still allowed for “intensive, hostile cross examination, just like in the High Court”. He said Fianna Fáil accepted that to establish negligence, cross examination by both parties is required but it “must be proportionate”.

He added that Fianna Fáil wants legal expertise and representation to be provide by the State and for that representation to be of appropriate seniority for women who could not afford legal representation.

The Wicklow TD said the legislation should have been before the House a long time ago as he referred to Taoiseach Leo Varadkar’s pledge over a year ago that “the State will be on the side of the plaintive, on the side of the woman”.

He said Mr Varakdar had promised that no more women caught up in the Cervical scandal would have to go to court, “but they did”.

Mr Donnelly said that “women need, and indeed deserve, an alternative to the public glare of the adversarial legal system” and the tribunal would offer a private space where women can discuss what happened to them. This is an important option to have, for those who want it, he said.

Sinn Féin health spokeswoman Louise O’Reilly described the Bill as an important step in protecting women in so far as it provides an alternative to the court system.

Obviously, she said, the aim of the tribunal is for hearings to be less adversarial and quicker and because an adjudicative tribunal like this had not been set up before “it is important that this legislation sets out the necessary parameters for the tribunal to do its work effectively, efficiently, and compassionately,”she said.

Ms O’Reilly said it was important the awards were in line with those offered in the court system.

She welcomed the work the tribunal would do to “hear testimonies and information from the affected women as well as those involved in the CervicalCheck programme, and anyone they deem necessary to hear from in the deciding of these claims”.

It is important that the tribunal hear and determine all issues of negligence, breach of duty, breach of statutory duty and breach of contract and other matters, she added.

Ms O’Reilly said that one of the most frustrating aspects of the scandal when it broke was the failure of the HSE, CervicalCheck, and the Department of Health to release all documentation.

“Therefore, it is significant that the tribunal will have powers to compel witnesses and documentation.”