No coroner for months as Troubles cases mount in Northern Ireland
Northern Ireland could be without a full-time coroner for up to two months.
With senior coroner John Leckey retiring next month, and with two others on sick leave, serious concerns have been raised about a potential logjam impacting on long-running legacy cases.
Solicitor Padraig O Muirigh, who represents the families of a number of people killed in disputed circumstances during the Troubles, said: "This is an urgent issue and needs to be addressed."
The matter was raised during a preliminary inquest for Catholic teenager Marian Brown who was gunned down on a Belfast street minutes after kissing her boyfriend goodnight in 1972.
The killing in Roden Street was first blamed on republican and then loyalist gunmen. An Army patrol was in the area at the time and soldiers claimed they had exchanged fire with a gunman in a car.
Mr Leckey (66) has been investigating deaths since 1984. He is due to step down on October 31.
There are currently 53 legacy cases relating to 86 deaths. They include the murder of 10 Protestant workmen at Kingsmill in 1976, the shooting of 10 people in Ballymurphy in 1971 and the killing of GAA official Sean Brown 18 years ago.
Alan Black, the sole survivor of the Kingsmill attack, has threatened to take legal action over the failure to appoint a new coroner.
In May, Justice Minister David Ford announced plans to utilise county court judges to act as coroners. The move was proposed as part of the Stormont House Agreement but plans have been unconfirmed.
An advertisement seeking a new coroner is expected to go out on September 10.
But Mr Leckey said: "The successful applicant is unlikely to be in post before Easter."
Mr O Muirigh told the court he was also "seriously concerned" the Department of Justice had not signalled an intention to replace a coroner due to take two months of sick leave later this year.
The Northern Ireland Courts and Tribunals Service said the process to recruit a new coroner would be launched this month. A county court judge is being appointed to assist with legacy inquests while another has been assigned to the Coroner's Office during this term.