New recruits for Coroners Service
Two specialist investigators are to be appointed to the Coroners Service in Northern Ireland in a bid to unblock major logjams in hearing legacy inquests.
One task of the officers will be to interview witnesses set to give evidence at the probes, some of whom are suspects in the contentious killings under investigation.
A lawyer representing Northern Ireland's senior coroner John Leckey revealed the Department of Justice plan during a court hearing this morning.
Gerry McAlinden QC said: "The Department of Justice have brought forward a plan to recruit two investigating officers to assist the coroner in the investigations necessary to prepare for hearing of those legacy inquests."
Mr McAlinden said what he hoped would be a "rigorously pursued" recruitment process would begin in September.
Mr Leckey welcomed the move but expressed frustration it would not resolve immediate problems.
"This is a positive development but with the best will in the world it's difficult to see these individuals will be in place before the new year," he said.
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 Army killings in Ballymurphy in west Belfast and the abduction and murder of GAA official Sean Brown 18 years ago.
The five Executive parties resolved to take steps to improve the running of the complex legacy cases during the Stormont House Agreement negotiations last year.
The recruitment initiative was outlined during a preliminary hearing for a long-delayed inquest that has been disrupted by the very issue of stalled re-interviews of suspects.
The widow of a nightclub doorman shot dead almost 20 years ago has begun a High Court challenge against a police decision not to re-interview the murder suspects.
Seamus Dillon, 45, was gunned down outside the Glengannon Hotel in Dungannon, Co Tyrone in December 1997.
The former paramilitary prisoner and father of three from Stewartstown, Co Tyrone was hit hours after the Loyalist Volunteer Force (LVF) leader Billy Wright was shot dead in the Maze prison in what is believed to have been a revenge attack.
His widow, Martina, applied for leave to judicially review the PSNI's decision yesterday.
The coroner's court today heard that in the High Court yesterday the PSNI contended that such re-interviewing should be undertaken by the Coroners Service.
Yesterday's High Court hearing was adjourned pending the outcome of today's preliminary inquest.
Today Mr Leckey made clear that it would inappropriate for his small team of solicitors and barristers to undertake such a task.
"First of all the Coroners Service is not resourced to engage in going out seeking out witnesses and taking statements," he said.
"Secondly, there's a difference between taking a statement from witnesses who may have observed something and interviewing witnesses who might be viewed as potential suspects."
He explained that lawyers did not have the powers of a police constable and could not act if any admission was made during interview.
"A person with the skills set needed to interview such persons is someone who is either a serving police officer or has previously served in that capacity and has the powers of a constable," he added.
Mr McAlinden said he hoped the appointment of the two investigators would resolve the issue in regard to the Dillon inquest, but he warned that it would be some time before such interviews could be conducted.
Mr Leckey is retiring in the autumn and there is currently no plan in place to appoint a new senior coroner. His retirement would leave only two full-time coroners in post, one of whom is currently off work on long-term sick leave.
Justice minister David Ford has announced plans to potentially utilise county court judges to act as coroners in the future.
Mr McAlinden today said there were also plans to appoint "deputy coroners".
But he indicated the resourcing issue was still a major problem and urged families involved in the legacy inquests to lobby their political representatives to take action to address it.