Judges to hear legacy inquests
Inquests into some of the most controversial Troubles-related killings will be heard by judges, Northern Ireland's Justice Minister has confirmed.
David Ford told MLAs the move, proposed as part of the Stormont House Agreement, would relieve pressure on the system.
He told MLAs: "By assigning judges from a higher tier to take responsibility for some of these legacy inquests it will, we trust, ensure that matters proceed speedily, more effectively and more efficiently for the benefit of those who are bereaved and who are seeking a full, proper inquest, as they would see it, for some considerable time."
At present, there are 53 legacy inquests relating to 86 deaths.
They include the IRA murder of 10 Protestant workmen at Kingsmill, Co Armagh in 1976; the 1971 Ballymurphy massacre; the abduction and murder of GAA official Sean Brown 18 years ago and the 1997 loyalist shooting of doorman Seamus Dillon.
An inquest probing the 1994 murder of pensioner Roseann Mallon has already been assigned to High Court Judge Mr Justice Weir but has stalled for legal reasons.
Northern Ireland's senior coroner John Leckey is retiring later this year and no replacement has been appointed.
The current County Court complement of judges is to be increased and Lord Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan will assume the role of president of the Coroners Court.
Speaking during Question Time at the Assembly, Mr Ford added: "My department has been set a challenging agenda by the agreement but work is well under way to deliver the necessary changes."
The Stormont House Agreeement, signed by the five main parties before Christmas, proposed to address the legacy of the 40-year conflict through the creation of a number of new agencies.
The new Historical Investigations Unit - which will re-examine unsolved conflict killings - is expected to be operational by next summer and a new chief is due to take up post by December, MLAs were told.
Sinn Fein MLA Raymond McCartney sought assurances that the "autonomy and independence" of the inquest process would not be compromised.
Trevor Lunn, of the Alliance Party, warned that the current stalemate over welfare reform could jeopardise the plans for the inquest process.
He said: "The lack of agreement on other matters, in particular welfare reform, presents a real risk to the interests of victims and families and survivors who have placed their hopes in the Stormont House Agreement."