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'As a coroner you don't get paid to cry. I've built up a resilience to very distressing evidence, but don't confuse that with being hardened... there are cases I find difficult emotionally'

By Rebecca Black

One of our youngest coroners, Joe McCrisken tells how his position constantly reminds him of the fragility of life, making him truly appreciate his family even more... and reveals that we have the kung-fu kicking Eric Cantona to thank for his pursuit of a legal career.

Q. Where were you brought up?

A. On the Whitewell Road in Greencastle, just outside Belfast. When I was 11 we all moved to Carrickfergus, where I lived until a couple of years ago. I was educated at St Malachy's College on the Antrim Road in Belfast, then I read undergraduate law at the University of Ulster at Jordanstown, and post-graduate law at Queen's.

Q. What drew you towards law?

A. When I started St Malachy's I remember I was quite keen to become a computer programmer. But in fifth year the class had to prepare a speech for an English language GCSE coursework piece and other students spoke about their favourite football team or their hobbies. That was around the time of the Eric Cantona kung-fu kick, and I prepared a speech as if I was Cantona's defence barrister in court. I remember walking around the classroom presenting this speech. It was only just because I thought that might get better marks...as it turned out I got top marks in the school for that particular piece and my English teacher actually suggested I might make a decent lawyer. I hadn't thought about it until that point.

Q. Where did you continue your legal training?

A. I studied for my professional qualifications at the Institute of Professional Legal Studies at Queen's and I was called to the bar in September 2002. Initially I practised in the civil courts under my then master. It was only in 2004 that I accepted instructions to become a prosecution counsel, so that's where I started working in the Magistrates Courts, Crown Courts and jury trials. I found that I liked practising in the area of criminal court and evidence.

Q. Do you feel it's tough to get work as a barrister if you are not well connected?

A. I don't accept that. Friends of mine who had connections found it as difficult as I did, if not more difficult, because the connections in their family don't want to be seen giving them work. I have no background or connections at all. I was the first member of my family to go to grammar school, the first to go to university, and certainly the first lawyer in the family. If anything, having no connections meant I just had to work harder.

It may well have been useful to have had a mother, father, uncle or aunt who was able to give me work, but I don't think that was a particular hindrance to me.

It is tough (to get started as a barrister). I go out to speak to students at Jordanstown once or twice a year, and in fact the students came in last week to watch an inquest. The talk that I give them is that it is harder these days, but it is harder for people in lots of different jobs.

There was a time when there were lots of barristers qualifying and those people had an expectation of getting work. But it was difficult when I was coming through as well. The first two years after I qualified I still worked part-time in a bar to pay the bills. It had never been easy to be a barrister. We don't get paid the same way that solicitors get paid. These days, just the way that the system had evolved, a lot more people are diverted away from courts, such as shoplifting cases. That sort of work isn't there any more for younger barristers to engage with.

Q. What brought you to the Coroner's Office?

A. I have always found the medical legal aspect of criminal work to be very interesting. I still remember reading my first post-mortem report during a criminal trial and I still remember speaking to a pathologist for the first time. I remember thinking this is a fascinating area where medicine, law and forensics all cross over.

I can remember John Leckey, the former Senior Coroner, telling me that the way people die is interesting. It can be tragic and traumatic, but it is interesting. Having an understanding of medicine, forensics and law I think - as well as coming from an ordinary background - allows me to provide answers to families because I think I know what answers they want, so I can either provide them with answers or give them a reason as to why I can't give them an answer.

I actually interviewed for the coroner's job in 2012 and was unsuccessful. It was probably too soon for me, but from that point on I knew I wanted to be a coroner so my focus from 2012 on was on becoming a coroner. I did what I had to do, studied what I had to study, to become a coroner.

Q. Are you the youngest Coroner Northern Ireland has had?

A. At the minute I am the youngest full-time judicial office holder. But Ms Anderson, who is one of the current full-time coroners, and Judge Sherrard, who was coroner before he became a County Court Judge, were both in their 30s when they were appointed. It is not unusual to be a young coroner in Northern Ireland.

Q. Can it be hard to switch off from some of the very upsetting cases you deal with?

A. Being involved with difficult, emotive and distressing work is something I have done both in this particular role and in my previous role as prosecution counsel. Over those years I have built up a resilience to very distressing material and situations that allows me to properly deal with evidence and analyse the evidence in the way I should do as coroner.

Resilience shouldn't be confused with being case-hardened. I still understand the emotions involved in an inquest, I still understand what a family must be going through and that allows me to tailor some parts of the process so as not to cause additional trauma to them. For instance, in the inquest recently of James Fenton (a young man who was found dead in the grounds of the Ulster Hospital), when it came to the point in the inquest when the post-mortem report was going to be outlined to the court, I gave the family the opportunity of leaving. Some of them wanted to leave, some of them didn't. I really didn't think that the people who remained really wanted to remain, so I rose for a bit of time to allow their barrister to speak to them, and I think they made the right decision and left. You can't unhear that type of material.

There are still cases that I find difficult emotionally, inquests involving young children. I have two young children myself under the age of four. I always find those particular deaths to be particularly difficult.

But my job is to properly analyse the evidence and provide the families with as many answers as possible. As an experienced coroner said to me at a conference recently: 'As a coroner you don't get paid to cry'. My job is to maintain that dignity and analyse the evidence as best as possible.

Q. Is there any case that has touched you in particular?

A. It is difficult to single out cases. These last few weeks have been difficult. Two high-profile cases, the death of Seamus McCollum and James Fenton. They have been difficult inquests because a cause of death hasn't been apparent. In the case of McCollum, as I said to the family in my findings, I simply wasn't able to provide an answer as to the cause of Seamus' death. Similarly with James Fenton last week.

When no answer is forthcoming, I say to families an inquest can be a very imperfect process, families don't always get what they expect. At a criminal trial you may well get one side or another who are content at the end, you get a guilty or not guilty verdict. Someone is going to be content. Sometimes after an inquest nobody is content because we haven't been able to answer the question.

The other ones I look back on, presently we have an issue with young people taking their own lives. This room is used regularly to meet families to discuss the issues they have, explain the inquest process and let them know what I am able to do. Sometimes families have their own expectations about what an inquest might do. It allows me to explain right at the outset, these are the questions I have to answer, I am not able to answer the 'why' question, the question a coroner answers is how a person came by their death, not why they did what they did. Sometimes the families want the 'why' question answers, and I simply don't have the legal powers to do that.

The decision whether to hold an inquest or not rests with me and me alone, but the family input is crucial. It would be a rare case where I would hold an inquest completely against the wishes of a family, unless the public interest outweighed the family's views.

Q. Is there anything about the current inquest process that you would change?

A. It has to be appreciated that there is so much good about the Coroner's Service in Northern Ireland when you compare it to England and Wales and the Republic of Ireland. We have a genuinely world-class State Pathologist's department, a state-of-the-art Forensic Science department at our disposal. We have an inhouse medical adviser, a qualified experienced doctor - they still haven't managed to achieve that in England. We have three full-time coroners and a dedicated staff who provide a service 365 days a year - 24/7 you can get access to a coroner. We have really high quality court facilities; I go to these conferences in England and speak to my colleagues across the water, and sometimes they don't have heating in their courts, they don't have courts to sit in, it's done on a council by council basis. We have a Coroner's Service, we get high quality court facilities throughout Northern Ireland and good quality office accommodation. This is a very, very good service we provide, and certain coroners in England are genuinely envious of the facilities we have.

That said, I have said on the record publicly that undue delay in moving to a decision or moving to an inquest hearing does not benefit anyone involved. In fact, it can be counter-therapeutic to a grieving family to have to wait an undue period of time to get the answers that they want. And there are aspects of the process that I think could be fine-tuned, but it is fine-tuning that may allow hearings to take place sooner, may allow documents to be received sooner, and that's something as a service that we are continuously working on.

Q. What do you think about the current backlog of historic cases?

A. The Lord Chief Justice, who is now the president of the Coroner's Court, has proposed a method by which these cases can be dealt with in accordance with our legal obligations under the convention. That proposal is presently under discussion at a political level and at present we await the outcome.

It wouldn't be appropriate for me as an independent coroner to comment further, other than to say the coroners will hold full and fair inquests into each and every death.

Q. How do you unwind?

A. I run and cycle. I find that running helps to clear my head and problem solve. I also like to spend time with my family. This job has allowed me to see the fragility of life, and that has made me appreciate my family even more.

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