Abuse inquiry may be Troubles inquest model, says judge
Inquests into scores of deaths involving allegations of state collusion and cover-up could go on until 2040 unless the inquest system is changed, Northern Ireland's top judge has warned.
Lord Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan described current arrangements for dealing with Northern Ireland's troubled past as unsatisfactory, "lamentable" and not working.
Suggesting the Historical Institutional Abuse Inquiry as a potential blueprint for providing an effective remedy, he said: "Unless a solution is achieved we will continue to incur considerable public expense in legal challenges and claims for compensation."
He also said there was no real chance of Stormont resolving the crisis for years.
Sir Declan's appraisal came as he delivered reasons for upholding a High Court decision to quash the verdict of the inquest into the RUC shooting of an IRA man 22 years ago. The ruling at the Court of Appeal in Belfast clears the way for a new hearing on the circumstances surrounding the death of Pearse Jordan in 1992.
In Jordan's case alone there have been 24 judicial reviews, 14 referrals to the Court of Appeal, two hearings in the House of Lords and one before the European Court of Human Rights.
Sir Declan said: "If the existing legacy inquests are to be brought to a conclusion under the present system, someone could easily be hearing some of these cases in 2040."
Jordan was killed in disputed circumstances on the Falls Road in west Belfast. His death was one of several high-profile cases involving shoot-to-kill claims.
Setting out reasons for the decision, Sir Declan said: "Despite the unsatisfactory nature of the present coronial system, no material step has been taken to address this lamentable state of affairs and there is no realistic prospect of the present Assembly legislating to resolve this situation before the expiry of its present mandate in May 2016," he said.
Pointing to the Historical Institutional Abuse (HIA) inquiry as a potential model for an effective solution, Sir Declan said all legacy cases could be taken out of the inquest system and considered in a time-bound inquiry.
The HIA is currently investigating allegations of child abuse at institutions in Northern Ireland between 1922 and 1995. It is time-limited, has a specific remit, will produce a final report, and has powers to compel witnesses in Northern Ireland to come before it. It can also demand evidence held here be handed over.
As well as using the HIA as a model, Sir Declan suggested:
- An inquiry chair with senior judicial experience.
- Facilities for independent investigation and powers to compel the appearance of witnesses and documents.
- Public Interest Immunity issues addressed by sensitive material being 'blacked out' and giving families enough information to comment on the evidence.