Eamon Butterly, former manager of the Stardust nightclub in which 48 young people died in 1981, has indicated he may challenge the constitutionality of forthcoming inquests unless the possible verdict, 'unlawful killing' is ruled out.
Counsel for the bereaved families told a preliminary inquests hearing in Dublin on Wednesday they were “appalled and extremely anxious” at the prospect of further delays to the inquests if Mr Butterly seeks a judicial review of the process.
Paul O'Higgins SC, for Mr Butterly, told Dublin coroner Dr Myra Cullinane, if 'unlawful killing' was a verdict available to the jury his relationship with the inquests would be "radically" changed and he "would have to question the constitutionality" of the proceedings.
He said the Coroners Act 1962 explicitly ruled out inquests investigating criminal or civil liability.
He said evidence would be heard relating to how the 48 died as a result of the fire on the night of February 13th-14th, 1981, which “could in another setting have a bearing on issues of civil and criminal liability”. However, the possibility of ‘unlawful killing’ verdicts at the inquests would open his client up to proceedings in the inquests that would contravene the 1962 Act, he said.
“I need some clarification of some potential verdicts which could not form part of the inquest’s consideration … If I don’t it may be that I have to reconsider what steps I may be constitutionally entitled to take in relation to it.”
Sean Guerin, SC for the families of 47 victims, said there was "no question" of his asking for a particular verdict or ruling on a verdict at this stage, but he said 'unlawful killing' must be included as a possible verdict.
It was entirely consistent with the coronial process for the families to “to express a concern that the deaths of their loved ones may have been the result not of accident or misadventure, but of unlawful killing”.
Citing a Supreme Court ruling from former Mr Justice Nial Fennelly, he said: "It is no way inconsistent with the inquisitorial character of an inquest that persons with a legitimate interest should propound a version of the facts that accords with those interests.
"To suggest that the pursuit of that legitimate interest … creates anything akin to a criminal trial or an allegation of civil or criminal wrong doing displays, with respect, a complete misunderstanding of the coronial process," said Mr Guerin.
Desmond Fahy, QC, and a member of Mr Guerin's legal team, said the families were "simultaneously appalled and extremely anxious at the prospect that this issue or any other proceedings having the potential effect to delay, at the 11th hour, inquests that they have waited decades for.
“That anxiety is only heightened by the suggestion today by counsel for Mr Butterly that on foot of these proceedings that further steps may be taken in relation to the constitutionality of the procedures, given that these procedures have been long outlined and have not been objected to in any way for months. We respectfully submit these matters are settled and have long been settled.”
Dr Cullinane said she would “rule by way of correspondence within a week, hopefully this week”, as to whether ‘unlawful killing’ would be an available verdict.