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Underfunding impeding police watchdog: judge

By Alan Erwin

Systemic and persistent government underfunding is impeding watchdog attempts to investigate complaints against police in Northern Ireland within a reasonable time, a High Court judge has ruled.

Mr Justice Maguire also declared that the Department of Justice acted unlawfully by failing to provide the Police Ombudsman with sufficient resources to examine alleged flaws in the RUC probe into a loyalist murder 35 years ago.

His verdict came in a legal challenge mounted after the family of Patrick Murphy were told the inquiry by Dr Michael Maguire's staff is not expected to be completed until 2025. Mr Murphy was shot dead on his 63rd birthday as he served customers at his grocer's shop on Belfast's Mount Merrion Avenue in November 1982.

No-one has ever been convicted for the sectarian killing believed to have been carried out by the UVF.

The victim's family lodged a complaint with the Police Ombudsman about how the murder investigation was handled in 2004 and 2009. They raised concerns about alleged failings and missed opportunities in the course of the probe.

But in 2014 they were told that staffing levels within the unit of the Ombudsman's office dealing with their case had been reduced by 25%. With budgetary cuts also imposed, the family were informed that the relevant programme of investigations could not be completed before 2025.

Mr Murphy's daughter, Patricia Bell (68), launched judicial review proceedings against the watchdog and the Department of Justice over the investigative delays.

During the hearing, counsel for the Ombudsman's office conceded it was in breach of its statutory duty to investigate within a reasonable time.

Ms Bell's lawyers described Dr Maguire and his team as "blameless". Instead, they argued that the Department was frustrating an obligation imposed on it by Parliament to allocate sufficient funding.

Delivering judgment, Mr Justice Maguire backed their case. Ruling that the situation was unreasonable, he said: "The present case is one of systemic and persistent underfunding which is disabling the Police Ombudsman, not in one but in a range of cases, and not in one lone period but over a period now of years, from being able to meet a not particularly demanding standard, that of carrying out its investigation into a public complaint against the police within a reasonable time."

Speaking outside court, Ms Bell said: "While the judgment is a pleasing outcome for myself and my wider family, we are, however, conscious that today is merely one further step to securing our ultimate aim - a prompt and robust investigation into the premature death of my father, Patrick Joseph Murphy."

Her solicitor, Ciaran Toner, added: "It speaks volumes that the court recognised that claims based on delay are unlikely to succeed save in very exceptional circumstances."

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