Coroner fury over inquest delays
Doubt continues to hang over the future of an inquest for a murdered GAA official almost 18 years ago, despite assurances that key documents will be disclosed.
Even though a crucial Historical Enquiries Team (HET) on the killing of Sean Brown will be handed over to his inquest, delays in obtaining a further 40 boxes of sensitive material could still hinder progress, a senior coroner has warned.
John Leckey said: "I am not saying the inquest is not going to start as arranged. I am proceeding on the basis that it will start as arranged but we will just have to wait and see."
Sean Brown, 61, was abducted and shot by loyalist paramilitaries after locking up a GAA club in Bellaghy, Co Londonderry in May 1997.
No-one has ever been charged with the killing, described by the coroner as among the most "dreadful" of Northern Ireland's 30 year conflict.
A full inquest has been scheduled to start in March.
But, in a scathing attack on the apparent lack of resources dedicated to the case by the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI), the coroner demanded representatives from the Department of Justice, Northern Ireland Office and PSNI attend an early morning court sitting, next week, to explain the long-running delays.
Mr Leckey added: "The State has a responsibility for ensuring that the various agencies of the State -- the PSNI being one -- are properly resourced to ensure that inquests can be dealt with expeditiously.
"The Secretary of State should ensure that some degree of independent superintendence can be exercised."
The coroner also claimed the hold-ups must be "confusing and frustrating" for the Brown family.
During the preliminary hearing at Mays Chambers in Belfast, concerns were raised about the disclosure of up between 35 and 40 boxes of sensitive material.
Gerry McAlinden QC, counsel for the coroners service said redactions, including the blanking out of names, had to be carried out by the PSNI before the paper-work could be disclosed.
He said: "If the present work rate is continued I could see it lasting almost three years before the entirety of the redactions is completed."
Earlier it was claimed the PSNI's failure to provide a crucial HET report was a major stumbling block in the case.
However, PSNI detective superintendent Jason Murphy, deputy head of the legacy investigations branch, which has replaced the HET, said the document could now be released, "subject to caveats".
The officer said the report was still in draft format but conceded there was no real prospect of further work being carried out because the HET had been shut down due to financial constraints.
Mr Murphy, who was not in uniform, told the court: "In October 2014 the HET was effectively ended. I lost half my 90 staff.
"In December 2014 I lost the other half of my staff.
"And, on December 31 the HET as an entity ceased to be.
"As a result of budget cuts the chief constable has been forced to re-evaluate how we do business."
The detective also claimed the PSNI would not stand over the HET document because it had not been formally "quality assured".
A barrister representing the PSNI said he understood the frustrations felt by the family and claimed efforts would be made to progress the case.
There was standing room only in the small court room. Supporting members of the Brown family in the public gallery were Sinn Fein MLAs Pat Sheehan and Jennifer McCann. SDLP MLA Alex Attwood was also present. Mr Brown's widow Bridie, who had attended an earlier hearing this week, was not at court.
Outside, solicitor Kevin Winters said the said the delays were having a "disastrous" impact on the Brown family who were being "re-traumatised".
He also claimed they planned to press ahead with plans to bring legal action against the PSNI, Secretary of State and Coroners Service over an alleged failure to adequately fund legacy cases.
Mr Winters said: "I think it is highly significant that the coroner has directed a senior officer come to court this week to explain the absolutely disgraceful state of affairs which has resulted in not one single shred of paper being made available to us as legal advisers on behalf of the Brown family. It is bordering on the farcical.
"A date was fixed for this case a year and a half ago and despite that passage of time we are coming to court with some degree of hope that we might get the case on in March but absolutely no prospect at this stage.
"The PSNI have not made the necessary efforts to deal with this case. We have all heard at length and ad nauseam that resources continues to be a problem but that particular problem arose late in the day last year. For a significant period of time prior to the resources excuse there was ample time to have this case prepared.
"(There is also) the continued failure by the Department of Justice to make the necessary money available, not just in this case, but a vast number of other similarly themed legacy issues."