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Wind of change finally blowing through courts system

By Paul Connolly

Published 30/10/2015

Key moves: Sir Declan Morgan
Key moves: Sir Declan Morgan

Some important changes over at the Royal Courts of Justice of late. Indeed, it's refreshing to see signs of fresh thinking.

Consider three recent high-profile developments and I think you'll agree that reform is, if not quite the order of the day, at least in the air under Lord Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan.

The most notable of these is a move by Sir Declan which - in layman's language - effectively takes our disgracefully flawed inquest system by the scruff of the neck.

Sir Declan has previously described the state of affairs of many Troubles inquests as "lamentable". Now he is taking on the role of presidency of the Coroners' Courts from next month and a judge will apparently preside over all outstanding controversial inquests relating to Troubles deaths.

So-called "legacy" inquests have been the subject of deliberate obfuscation and delay, usually by State actors including the police, security services and politicians too handy with so-called public interest immunity certificates and other blocking tactics.

Inserting a senior judge into these matters will hopefully galvanise officialdom and empower the legal process to cut through all the blatant dissembling.

The deliberate tactics of delay and wriggle that have unfolded regularly in Coroners' Courts down the years have been, in my opinion, shameful acts in a wider legal system otherwise now regarded by all but the most unreasonable as fair and impartial.

Many observers have been deeply concerned by the state of our inquest system and, indeed, the Government has been indicted in Europe. (Incidentally, there are issues with some non-Troubles inquests, too, which I hope will be tackled).

A wider initiative is needed on the past. Sir Declan was right to suggest a "visible political commitment from Westminster" would also be crucial in these matters, including a "pivotal role" for the Minister of Defence. I'd add that chief constables should sit up and listen to the debate as well. This could get interesting.

There was another announcement, too, that is indicative of the winds of change: the appointment of Northern Ireland's first women High Court judges, Denise McBride QC and Siobhan Keegan QC.

This is the first time since the creation of the Northern Ireland legal system in 1921 that women have been appointed High Court judges here. The first time in 94 years! Frankly, it is quite incredible.

Judicial appointments are, of course, via the Northern Ireland Judicial Appointments Commission chaired by Sir Declan, which has responsibility for selection and recommendation of the appointment of judges here up to High Court level.

Sir Declan played a key role in establishing the Women in Law group in 2012 and it is significant that the appointments come on his watch. He is rightly proud of the move, telling the BBC the appointments made him feel as though "the hands of history" were on his shoulder.

There have been other signals of reform in the last couple of years, including, as I've discussed previously, Sir Declan's assertive move last year to overturn a quarter of anonymity orders wrongly granted to sex offenders under the 1992 Sexual Offences Act.

This column has long argued that Northern Ireland's courts - like other parts of our society - have been too conservative, risk-averse and resistant to change.

It's early days yet, but perhaps that script is starting to be rewritten.

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