Stardust fire inquests delayed over legal aid row

Department has not released any funding, solicitor for bereaved families says

Stardust survivor Antoinette Keegan says the Department of Justice ‘has done nothing but mess us around, obstruct and fight with us for the past 40 years’. Photograph: Dara Mac Donaill

Stardust survivor Antoinette Keegan says the Department of Justice ‘has done nothing but mess us around, obstruct and fight with us for the past 40 years’. Photograph: Dara Mac Donaill

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The opening of the Stardust fire inquests, due to begin this year, has been delayed amid a row over legal aid between the families and the Department of Justice.

A spokeswoman for Dublin coroner Dr Myra Cullinane told The Irish Times a start date had not been set as “the bereaved families have advised that to date they have not finalised arrangements for the appointment of a legal team”.

Their solicitor, Darragh Mackin, said he had been unable to instruct barristers as the department had not yet released any funding to the families despite their application for legal aid being approved by Dr Cullinane.

Budget 2021 allocated €8.2 million for the inquests, following an order in 2019 by the former attorney general Séamus Woulfe that fresh inquests into the 48 victims of the 1981 fire be held in the public interest.

Sunday will mark the 40th anniversary of the blaze which engulfed the Stardust ballroom, a popular venue in Artane, Dublin. Most of the dead, aged 16-25, came from the nearby areas of Coolock, Donnycarney and Beaumont, with others coming from Sandymount, Belfast and Derry.

Mr Mackin, who is representing 43 families of 46 of the victims, said the dispute centred on the manner in which legal aid was provided to next of kin at inquests.

Fees

While families’ legal teams are usually paid after the inquest and receive a fee per death, per day of inquest, he said this would be “totally ludicrous” in a case “of this scale”. It would mean his team being paid 46 fees per day.

The inquests, to be held at the RDS in Dublin, are expected to last a number of months.

“We have engaged with the department to ask that we are simply paid our costs, which we actually believe would cost less than under the per diem system,” Mr Mackey said. “Equally, the per diem system doesn’t pay for preparation on this scale, for any work prior to the inquest. The quid pro quo, what we are saying is reduce the rate, so lawyers and barristers are paid in advance preparing the case.

“The department hasn’t come back with a response despite numerous requests,” he said. “We understand all the other parties have teams of barristers working but until such times as fees are in place, we can’t instruct counsel.”

Families expressed their frustration at the delay. “The department has done nothing but mess us around, obstruct and fight with us for the past 40 years,” said Antoinette Keegan (58), who survived the fire but lost her sisters Mary (19) and Martina (16).

A spokesman for the Department of Justice said: “The department is aware the coroner has certified applications for legal aid from the families of those who died in the Stardust fire. The department and its agencies continue to engage in this matter to ensure the families have the support they require.”

Minister for Justice Helen McEntee said: “I sympathise greatly with the families of the 48 young people for the terrible loss they suffered. I also recognise the lasting impact on everyone who attended that night. I hope that the fresh inquests will meet the expectations of the families who have endured and continue to endure enormous suffering.”

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