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Ongoing recruitment difficulties at Office of State Pathologist

Recruitment to senior positions at the Office of the State Pathologist “remains challenging” in the context of a worldwide shortage of forensic pathologists, according to Acting Chief State Pathologist Dr Linda Mulligan.

A second competition for the Chief State Pathologist post and a competition for a State Pathologist post were unsuccessful in 2019, outlines Dr Mulligan in the Office’s annual report.

Dr Mulligan is assisted by State Pathologist Dr Kathleen Han Suyin and two Locum Assistant State Pathologists – Dr Heidi Okkers and Dr Margot Bolster who is based in Cork. The positions of Chief State Pathologist and an additional State Pathologist remain unfilled.

A Department of Justice spokesperson said today that recruitment opportunities in the Office of the State Pathologist will be advertised by the Public Appointments Service in the next four to six weeks.

Developments

The loss of Acting Chief State Pathologist Dr Michael Curtis to retirement in December was “significant”, particularly as it closely followed that of Prof Marie Cassidy in 2018, outlined Dr Mulligan in the report.

Dr Curtis’s “expert guidance and in-depth forensic knowledge will be difficult to replace”.

However, Dr Mulligan also referenced positive developments including the appointment in November of Dr Okkers. In addition, Mr Joseph Brady became the Office’s permanent Senior Laboratory Analyst in 2019.

Dr Mulligan also reported that computer access to the National Integrated Medical Imagining System (NIMIS) has been established, allowing for real-time review and discussion of post-mortem imaging in relevant cases.

RCPI review

Possibly the most important development of 2019, according to Dr Mulligan, was the publication of the RCPI’s review of the Office. This review set out 13 recommendations including the need to establish a training scheme and the provision of appropriate facilities.

“Implementation of the recommendations will create a 21st century National Forensic Pathology Service, in line with international standards,” according to Dr Mulligan.

“The support of the Department of Justice and Equality (DJE), the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland and all of our stakeholders will be vital to this process. With their help, we continue to liaise with the Irish Medical Council in the pursuit of a viable training option.”

Remit

The Office of the State Pathologist is a non-statutory executive agency established on an administrative basis under the aegis of the Department of Justice.

The main activity of the Office is the performance of post-mortem examinations in cases of sudden, unexplained death where a criminal or suspicious element is present (referred to as “State” cases).

The Office’s annual report provides a detailed account of its activity in 2019, notably:

– 335 cases were dealt with by the Office in 2019

– 188 of these were State cases, 115 were adult non-suspicious post-mortem examinations for the Dublin Coroner

– Attendance at the scene of death was recorded in 34 of 188 cases (18 per cent) in 2019

– There were 27 cases of skeletonised remains, 13 of which were documented as animal bones

– Approximately 16 working days were used by pathologists attending out of office commitments such as inquests and criminal court proceedings

– 125 hours were spent by pathologists in providing teaching services to various bodies, higher education institutions and graduate medical students.

As well as highlighting difficulties in replacing State Pathologists who have retired, the report referenced budget overruns in 2019 due to new staff coming on board and locum pathologists covering for vacancies.

In addition, the report noted the large geographic area that State Pathologists cover and the time lost travelling to conduct post-mortems in other jurisdictions. Of the four pathologists in the Office, three are based in Dublin and one is based in Cork. In 2019, 132 of the 188 cases involved travel to a mortuary outside of the pathologist’s locality.

Welcoming the annual report, Minister for Justice Helen McEntee commented: “The Office of the State Pathologist plays a vital role in the criminal justice system through investigating suspicious deaths. The expertise and professionalism of our pathologists is an essential service to An Garda Síochána, the Courts Service and ultimately to the families of victims seeking justice.

“The common thread through all aspects of their role is that of service. Service to the deceased victims of crime and to their families and friends. Service to the next generation of professionals in the field.  And service to society at large. I commend the Office for the very difficult work which they carry out, on all of our behalf.

“The Annual Report makes reference to the excellent work done by the RCPI in their review of the Office published in 2019. My Department is fully committed to working with the [Office] in the coming years to give practical effect to the recommendations of the review.”

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