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Massive challenge of trying to deal with thousands of files

By Deborah McAleese

Published 18/05/2015

Nine red storage boxes are neatly stacked in a room inside Seapark PSNI station.

The boxes are packed with thousands of pages of documents and files relating to a historic murder that have been requested by the coroner for a controversial legacy inquest.

It is the painstaking job of one person from the PSNI's Legacy Support Unit (LSU) to photocopy, scan and read every single page within those boxes.

They will then have to consider what material on each page could potentially expose an individual to risk of harm if disclosed.

Suggested redactions will be highlighted in red on each page and then passed onto legal advisers to review. They will then be forwarded to the senior officer who may send them back for amendments. After several months, the files with their suggested redactions will finally be ready for the coroner to view.

The coroner is privy to all material and can agree or disagree with suggested redactions. The coroner is the ultimate arbiter.

Once the coroner has agreed the level of disclosure, the files with their permanent redactions are made ready for inquest.

Currently, this administrative process is taking up to 1.5 years for one case. A lack of prioritisation to the inquests has meant researchers are having to jump from one case to another.

"If the researchers were left alone they could get a case done in three months. But there is no prioritisation. They are having to chop and change. Therefore, from start to finish, it will take easily 1.5 years," said Deputy Chief Constable Drew Harris.

There are 53 inquests relating to 86 deaths from the Troubles, an undeniably a huge administrative undertaking.

To date it has been estimated around 780,000 pages, contained in 2,508 files, have been generated for the coronal process. Of those pages, 130,000 have been redacted in a suggested form.

Even when a case finally reaches inquest stage, legal challenges, judicial reviews and civil litigations add to this ever-expanding workload.

The LSU is currently preparing material for disclosure with regard to 70 civil claims and judicial reviews against the PSNI.

Mr Harris has warned that under the present system it could take a "lifetime" to complete the legacy inquests.

And Lord Chief Justice Declan Morgan recently warned that unless a solution to dealing with legacy issue is found, "someone could easily be hearing some of these cases in 2040".

Sir Declan said that a model, such as the Historical Institutional Abuse Inquiry, might provide the basis for an effective solution.

"It would be possible to have all of the legacy cases taken out of the inquest system and all of them considered in a time-bound inquiry," he said.

He also warned that unless a solution is achieved, "considerable public expense" will be incurred in legal challenges and claims for compensation.".

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