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Troubles inquest delays shaming justice system

Editor's Viewpoint

Published 03/09/2015

Senior coroner John Leckey wrote to Theresa Villiers expressing his concern over delays to inquests
Senior coroner John Leckey wrote to Theresa Villiers expressing his concern over delays to inquests

Crossmaglen man Henry Thornton was shot dead outside Springfield Road police station in west Belfast 44 years ago. Astonishingly, even after the passage of more than four decades, the authorities are not yet in a position to proceed with an inquest into his death.

But this is no aberration in the justice system for his killing is just one of 85 legacy deaths dating back decades which still await inquests.

Indeed, last year the Lord Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan said inquests relating to scores of these deaths could still be going on in 2040 under the current lamentable arrangements.

Such was the concern of the province's senior coroner John Leckey over the delays that he wrote to Secretary of State Theresa Villiers last year warning that the Government could be in breach of international law for failing to adequately resource inquests into historic Troubles-related deaths.

What has to be remembered in all these arguments is that families have been left in limbo for an inexcusably long time without hearing at an inquest how their loved ones died and without being able to raise their own concerns over the deaths.

Delays of this magnitude mean that witnesses and family members will die long before any hearing. Other witnesses may be unable to accurately recall what happened two, three or more decades ago. As in the case of Mr Thornton, it may now be nigh on impossible to trace some witnesses.

The bottom line is that justice delayed is justice denied. And the delays may even get worse as two coroners are currently on sick leave and Mr Leckey is due to retire.

Last month the Department of Justice revealed plans to overhaul the system, with senior judges taking over the more complex cases and investigators being appointed to help coroners with their workload.

However, tradition has it that the wheels of justice grind exceedingly slowly and while this plan certainly has merit, how soon can it be implemented?

And even with the best will and best intentions, inquests cannot be held if vital evidence is withheld and that has been the case in many contentious legacy deaths with files from police, Army and other state agencies not being made readily available. These inquest delays shame our justice system and add to the grief and hurt of the families.

Belfast Telegraph

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