Stardust families’ rights breached by ‘unlawful’ failure to provide legal aid

Solicitor will seek judicial review if inquest delays over funding not resolved in coming weeks

 Supporters at an event in February to mark the 40th anniversary of the Stardust fire, where 48 people died, in Artane, Dublin. File photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Supporters at an event in February to mark the 40th anniversary of the Stardust fire, where 48 people died, in Artane, Dublin. File photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

 

Bereaved families of the Stardust disaster will seek a judicial review of the “unlawful” failure of the Department of Justice to provide legal aid for the inquests, if the matter is not resolved in coming weeks.

Solicitor Darragh Mackin says the families’ human rights are “unquestionably” being breached by the ongoing logjam over funding. Unless the crisis is resolved within 21 days, he will be forced to “apply to the court for the necessary relief” of a declaration under article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights. he says.

The Stardust 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,

They will be the first in Ireland in which the ECHR is engaged. Article 2 guarantees the right to life, obliging the member states to investigate deaths where that right has been violated.

Budget 2021 allocated €8.2 million for the inquests following an order in 2019 by the former attorney general Séamus Woulfe that they were in the public interest.

While other legal teams, including for Dublin Fire Brigade and the Stardust’s owners, have been allocated funding, most of the families have not been granted legal aid. As a result Mr Mackin has yet to instruct counsel, delaying the inquests.

Some families have been told their income makes them ineligible for legal aid. Though section 29(2) of the Civil Legal Aid Act 1995 allows discretion to waive the financial eligibility test, this would require a statutory instrument which has yet to be introduced.

In a letter to Minister for Justice Helen McEntee, seen by The Irish Times, Mr Mackin says: “The current inaction is an unquestionable breach of our clients’ Article 2 ECHR rights... [it] drives a cart and horses through the principle of equality before the law.”

Antoinette Keegan, whose sisters Mary (19) and Martina (16) died in the fire said: “I can’t believe they [Department of Justice] are doing this. They are rubbing salt into the wounds, prolonging and prolonging and prolonging it, causing undue distress to us. We are being degraded.”

Senator Lynn Boylan, who is to the raise the ongoing delay as a commencement matter in the Seanad on Monday, described the treatment of the families as “shameful”.

A spokesman said the Department of Justice was, “actively engaging with the Attorney General’s office to explore possible mechanisms to provide legal aid to the very small number of families who do not meet the financial eligibility requirements under the Act and expects to be in a position to provide more information shortly.”

Some of the families will protest outside Leinster House on Monday morning to protest their situation.