Cervical Check Tribunal ‘not fit for purpose’, says Vicky Phelan

Government working to ensure tribunal is as ‘non-adversarial as possible’, says Donnelly

Vicky Phelan said on Thursday there was ‘a lot wrong’ with the Government’s plans for the tribunal. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw/The Irish Times.

Vicky Phelan said on Thursday there was ‘a lot wrong’ with the Government’s plans for the tribunal. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw/The Irish Times.

 

Campaigner Vicky Phelan has said the Cervical Check Tribunal is “not fit for purpose” and that she feels forced to advise affected patients not to engage with the process.

Ms Phelan said on Thursday there was “a lot wrong” with the Government’s plans for the tribunal and that a “non-adversarial route” was needed which would not oblige women to fight back against the labs.

She added that if the Minister for Health moved ahead without further engagement with patients, “we will be forced to recommend to our members that they do not engage”.

The Cervical Check scandal came to light when Vicky Phelan settled a High Court action in 2018 over a misread smear test. Since then, Ms Phelan, from Limerick, has spearheaded a campaign to highlight the plight of hundreds of women who suffered adverse health effects or died as a result of mistakes in reading smear test results.

The Cabinet agreed earlier this week that the tribunal, which is to investigate negligence in the State’s cancer screening programme, would begin its work on October 27th.

The tribunal was established as an alternative to legal proceedings for women affected by diagnostic mistakes arising from misread screenings. It had originally been scheduled to begin its work last March, but was delayed over six months by the onset of the coronavirus outbreak.

Ms Phelan told RTÉ Radio’s Morning Ireland programme that the 221 Plus CervicalCheck patient support group had met with Stephen Donnelly and members of his department six weeks ago where they raised a number of issues they had with the tribunal.

Adversarial

She said the group was worried about the adversarial nature of the tribunal and requested that applicants who receive an award be allowed to return should they suffer a recurrence of their cancer, in the same way that applicants before the Hep-C Tribunal could return if their health deteriorated. The group also expressed concern around the statute of limitations.

“We left the meeting at the time encouraged that there would be further consultation and we never felt at any stage that we weren’t heard,” she said. “Yet, two days ago we found ourselves reeling in shock to receive a letter, not only rejecting all of our concerns, but confirming the imminent establishment of the tribunal in seven days time.”

Ms Phelan noted that the group had not been given the opportunity to respond to the Minister’s decision to establish the tribunal before the public announcement.

She described Tánaiste Leo Varadkar’s apology last year as a “momentous day for us” which “marked the start of the healing process”.

“We felt heard,” she said. “Unfortunately this week when we read the letter from Minister Donnelly we have felt anything but heard.”

“We simply don’t understand why the Minister would not take the opportunity to work with us, to make the tribunal something that our members might engage with.

“The tribunal as we see is not fit for purpose. More of our concerns should have been taken on board. The tribunal sounds like a slap in the face.”

In a Twitter thread posted on Wednesday night, Ms Phelan said the Minister had given a “flat rejection” of all the group’s concerns and stated that laboratories must be involved in the proceedings if taken before the tribunal. “This will not be acceptable to many of our members”, she wrote.

Ms Phelan called on the Minister to sit down with the group and to establish a tribunal in which the women would want to participate.

Negligence

Later on Morning Ireland, Mr Donnelly said he would meet with the 221 Plus group before Tuesday, adding that all he wanted to do was “set up a system that works for the women”.

Responding to Ms Phelan’s grievances, the health minister said the Government was working to make the tribunal as “non-adversarial as possible” but that questions needed to be asked to ensure all cases of negligence were established.

He said it had been agreed that the tribunal would end after a certain period of time, noting that it would be in place for nine months.

“My concern is if we don’t go with the tribunal, and we end up back in the courts, the women involved can take cases against the State but negligence has to be established,” he said. “That means the State has to bring the labs in.”

If the labs are not involved, a second court case would have to follow and the women might be pulled back in, he said. “I don’t believe that would be fair on the women involved.”

Mr Donnelly said he was listening to the women involved and would continue to listen.