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Lord Chief Justice suggests HIA-style approach could speed progress on inquests

Published 22/10/2015

Lord Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan warned the current inquest system was ineffective
Lord Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan warned the current inquest system was ineffective

An inquiry modelled on that held into historical child abuse would speed progress on inquests into conflict deaths, the head of Northern Ireland's judiciary said.

Lord Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan warned the current inquest system was ineffective and declared coroners' hearings should not be allowed to "wither on the vine" because witnesses are themselves dying or difficult to trace.

A total of 54 legacy cases touching on some of the most contentious killings of the Troubles are outstanding - some from the 1970s.

A judge-led Historical Institutional Abuse (HIA) inquiry has been investigating alleged child abuse at church and state-run homes in Northern Ireland.

Sir Declan said: "A HIA-style approach would undoubtedly speed up the hearing of the cases but would involve some compromises. There may be other options and I am open to considering these.

"It may be that we need a blend of approaches that we could match to the characteristics of individual cases."

The senior law official said many legacy cases could take years to complete under the current system.

Among them are the Kingsmill inquests into the sectarian murder of 10 Protestant workmen in South Armagh by the IRA and so-called security force shoot-to-kill deaths.

There have been only 13 cases disposed of in the past 10 years.

Outstanding evidence, screening of documents and the tracking down of witnesses, including ex-military, is causing significant delay, Sir Declan told a meeting with victims in Belfast.

"One practical option - though I fully expect that some may find this unpalatable - would be to proceed in such cases on the available evidence.

"This would by no means be ideal, but it reflects the fact that 22 of the 54 cases are now over 40 years old.

"The stark reality is that with the passage of time, some witnesses might never be located or they may have died by the time a case comes to be heard.

"It would not be in the interests of justice, I would have thought, to allow such cases to wither on the vine."

He acknowledged a balance needed to be struck between the breadth of the inquest and the speed with which the cases can be completed, "though this balance would have to be determined very carefully and on an individual basis: it could not be exploited as a general expedient".

"If we wait too long we may not be in a position to deliver a meaningful inquest."

He added: "A visible political commitment from Westminster will also be crucial, and I see a pivotal role for the Secretary of State for Defence."

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