Funding cuts could hit police report into loyalist murder until 2025
Funding cuts which could delay completion of a report on police handling of a loyalist murder until 2025 are unlawful and indefensible, the High Court has heard today.
Counsel for 68-year-old Patricia Bell claimed the Department of Justice (DoJ) is in breach of a statutory duty to properly resource the watchdog examining alleged serious failings in the RUC investigation into her father's killing.
Patrick Murphy was shot dead on his 63rd birthday back in November 1982.
He was gunned down as he served customers at his general grocer's shop on Mount Merrion Road in Belfast. No-one has ever been convicted for the killing.
In 2004 Mr Murphy's family lodged a complaint with the Police Ombudsman about how the murder investigation was handled.
But probes into historic cases by the current Ombudsman, Dr Michael Maguire, are now facing delays of up to a decade following a £750,000 reduction in his budget.
In court today it was revealed that further proposed cuts of as much as 15% are anticipated over the next three years.
"The future is anything but rosy for the Police Ombudsman's Office," his solicitor said.
Judicial review proceedings against both the watchdog and the DoJ claim the hold-up is unlawful and contravenes a legal requirement to investigate within a reasonable timeframe.
With the Ombudsman accepting it is in breach of its legal obligation due to a lack of funding, Ms Bell's barrister described Dr Maguire and his staff as "blameless".
Instead, Barry Macdonald QC argued that the Department cannot frustrate a duty imposed on it by Parliament to provide adequate resources.
Seeking an order for funding to be made available and damages for the alleged delay, he said: "The Department simply can't escape its lawful, statutory duty by saying it hasn't been given the money to do that, otherwise schemes would never be enforceable.
"There simply can be no defence."
Counsel for the Department claimed it attempted to minimise cuts being passed on to the Ombudsman's operating budget.
He also stressed that the DoJ was operating within the context of policy issues and political difficulties.
Mr Justice Maguire was told the Fresh Start deal agreed by the DUP and Sinn Fein last November did not include a way forward on dealing with legacy issues and implementing the historical investigations unit (HIU).
Peter Coll QC contended: "The Court should be very careful not to tread into forbidden territory of resources by the executive branch of government and what might be seen as matters of political disagreement or lack of consensus on contentious issues in this jurisdiction."
But the judge repeatedly pressed him on the possibility of Ms Bell having to wait nine years for the Ombudsman's report.
"This is a lady who I think is in her sixties and appears to have suffered a great deal from this terrible death," he said.
"A request for investigation by the Police Ombudsman which can't be completed before 2025 does seem to be to be, on the face of it, something the Department cannot possibly be other than highly concerned about."
Reserving his verdict in the case, however, Mr Justice Maguire emphasised that he has reached no final conclusion.
He added: "I'm hopeful I might get a judgment out before 2025 anyway."