Inquest challenge | 

High Court rejects effort by ex-Stardust manager to rule out finding of ‘unlawful killing’

However, the judge said, this can only be in "appropriate circumstances" and only where no person(s) is identified or identifiable.

Families of the victims of the Stardust fire. Photo: Frank McGrath

Sunday World

Former Stardust manager Eamon Butterly has failed in a High Court challenge over a new inquest into the 48 deaths in the 1981 Valentine's night nightclub disaster.

Mr Justice Charles Meenan rejected Mr Butterly's claim that the inquest could not make findings of unlawful killing. However, the judge said, this can only be in "appropriate circumstances" and only where no person(s) is identified or identifiable.

Mr Butterly had sought to prevent Dublin City Coroner Myra Cullinane from conducting the inquest in a way in which he believed would make him "a target for a verdict of unlawful killing".

The coroner, the Minister for Justice and the Attorney General, opposed the application while the families of the deceased, the Garda Commissioner and Dublin City Council were notice parties.

On Wednesday, Mr Justice Charles Meenan refused Mr Butterly's application saying he was satisfied the ruling by Ms Cullinane last February that a verdict of unlawful killing could not be ruled out at that stage was correct in law.

Ms Cullinane's grounds for doing so included that she could give appropriate directions to the jury and that it would be open to legal teams of all interested parties to make any necessary submissions as to what directions should be given.

Mr Justice Meenan said an inquest is an inquisitorial hearing to establish the facts concerning the who, how, when, where and circumstances of a person’s death. It is not an exercise of considering or apportioning blame or exoneration, he said.

The Coroners Acts prohibit questions of civil or criminal liability being considered or investigated and verdicts censuring or exonerating a person, he said.

These restrictions however do not prevent an inquest establishing the facts concerning the circumstances of a person’s death even though those facts may be ultimately relevant in another forum dealing with criminal or civil liability, he said.

Parties before an inquest are entitled to fair procedures but this entitlement is limited given the statutory confines within which an inquest takes place, he said.

Sections 30 and 31 of the Coroners Acts do not prohibit verdicts of unlawful killing, he said.

Questions of civil or criminal liability or verdicts containing censure or exoneration arise where the person(s) concerned are identified or identifiable.

"In appropriate circumstances there may be a verdict of unlawful killing but only where no person(s) is identified or identifiable", he said.

The law also gives a coroner discretion to consider the circumstances of a person’s death. It may be that the more detailed the evidence is on the circumstances of the death "the less permissible will be a verdict of unlawful killing", he said.

"It is for the coroner, having heard all the evidence, who gave the evidence, and considered the submissions of the parties, to direct the jury as to the permissible verdicts."

Mr Butterly, whose family owned the Artane nightclub, managed the venue when fire broke out leading to 48 deaths and 128 injured on the night of February 13/14, 1981.

There were a number of inquiries over the years including a government appointed tribunal which found the "more probable explanation of the fire is that it was caused deliberately." Inquests in 1982 recorded deaths in accordance with the medical evidence.

The families of the deceased have long campaigned to have the tribunal finding overturned and for new inquests to be held.

In 2008, then senior counsel Paul Coffey was appointed to examine the case for a new inquiry and he found the finding in 1982 that the fire was deliberately started was not objectively justifiable on the evidence.

A further review, based on new evidence, by a retired judge in 2017, found a further inquiry was not warranted.

Then, following further campaigning by the families, the Attorney General directed a new inquest be held.

Mr Butterly had also sought a declaration from the court that his rights had been breached by the failure to provide him with free legal aid at the inquest in circumstances where a verdict of unlawful killing would be available to the coroner.

In a separate judgment on that issue, Mr Justice Meenan refused the application.

The judge said while Mr Butterly is entitled to fair procedures in the course of the inquest, these procedures are not of the order that arise in an adversarial process.

Mr Butterly is not a party and is not defending himself against allegations as might be the case in civil or criminal hearings, he said.

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