Belfast Telegraph

£30m cost of investigating the past

Dealing with the past is costing Northern Ireland's criminal justice system more than £30 million a year and risks denting public confidence in present-day services, an inspection has revealed.

Long-delayed inquests into conflict deaths are taking hours of police service preparation, a historical enquiries team (HET) of independent detectives is looking into thousands of unresolved Troubles killings and the Police Ombudsman has scrutinised murder investigations dating back decades.

Brendan McGuigan, chief inspector of criminal justice, said a legacy group with membership drawn from across the services should be established to improve communication.

He said: "The report looked at the estimated total costs, which may exceed over £187 million in five years' time, and the implications and risks that legacy issues can create in terms of reduced public confidence in the criminal justice system, and the ability of criminal justice agencies to deliver effective and efficient services now and in the future."

The inspection noted the willingness and commitment of leaders and organisations to meet their individual and collective obligations.

But he said this resolve was undermined by delay as the various agencies sought to ensure that those with the correct skills were allocated to addressing legacy issues.

Mr McGuigan said the system had not been structured to deal with the past and could not provide a comprehensive solution.

Without political consensus, the chief inspector advocated the establishment of a legacy executive group with membership from across the system to improve communications and create a common strategy.

"This group could in turn address key issues such as the prioritisation, co-ordination and progression of legacy cases which may be beneficial in terms of managing the needs and expectations of victims and their families," he said.

A murder investigation team was diverted from its duties to process papers for a long-delayed inquest, such is the mounting pressure on the police unit tasked with disclosing historic files, a senior police commander has revealed.

The detectives were taken away from live cases to security-check documentation required for the inquest for murdered Co Tyrone teenager Arlene Arkinson, PSNI deputy chief constable Judith Gillespie said.

She said the step was taken as the police unit that deals with redacting files for the coroner's court was already overloaded with work linked to the so-called shoot-to-kill inquests and the required disclosure of the top secret Stalker/Sampson reports on the deaths.

The inquest into the 1994 death of 15-year-old Castlederg schoolgirl Arlene, whose body has never been found, is set to get under way in the spring after years of delay.

The PSNI has faced heavy criticism for the time it has taken to disclose papers to lawyers working on historic inquests, with particular concerns raised by senior coroner John Leckey in regard to the Arkinson case and the nine deaths linked to the security forces' alleged shoot-to-kill policy.

In attempting to explain the problems facing the PSNI, Ms Gillespie told members of the Policing Board that the workload on the legacy support unit had tripled in a year.

As well as 40 outstanding inquests, she said disclosure work had been required for the current historical child abuse inquiry; investigationss by the police's HET; police ombudsman investigations; and public inquiries such as the Bloody Sunday and Smithwick probes.

In response to the report, PSNI Chief Constable Matt Baggott said: "We have consistently stated that the post devolution PSNI is not resourced to deal with the legacy of the past.

"The cost of policing the past has a massive impact on how we deal with the present and the future.

"The past is an emotive subject and the views of victims' families must be respected. However, with diminishing budgets and growing operational pressures, there must be realistic and challenging conversations about where the past fits within current policing priorities.

"Today's report by CJINI is another contribution to the debate being led by Richard Haass."

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