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Delays in Troubles inquests could see dozens of damages lawsuits

The government could face dozens of new damages lawsuits over delays in holding inquests into conflict-related deaths in Northern Ireland, it emerged today.

As the families of five men killed by either police, soldiers or loyalist paramilitaries were given a High Court date for compensation claims, their lawyer predicted a successful outcome could pave the way for other so-called legacy cases.

Relatives issued proceedings against the coroner and either the PSNI, Police Ombudsman's Office or Ministry of Defence.

They claim their human rights have been breached by the failure to examine the circumstances surrounding each death as soon as possible.

The families are seeking a High Court declaration that systemic delays have occurred and an order that immediate dates be set for the inquests.

The earliest killing under scrutiny is that of Michael Ryan.

He was one of three IRA men ambushed and shot dead by the SAS in Coagh, County Tyrone, in June 1991.

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A car the trio were in was riddled with gunfire and burst into flames. Their bodies were found inside the burnt-out vehicle.

A similar application has been brought on behalf of Catholic man Fergal McCusker.

The 28-year-old was kidnapped and shot dead in Maghera, County Londonderry, by loyalist paramilitaries in January 1998.

Relatives of Neil McConville, 21, the first person killed by the PSNI, are also challenging the inquest situation.

Mr McConville, from Bleary, County Armagh, was shot following a car chase in April 2003.

Officers were following the vehicle being driven by Mr McConville near Lisburn, County Antrim, on the correct suspicion that it was transporting a gun.

Police opened fire amid fears he was about to drive over an officer already knocked down and lying injured directly in his path.

Two further police-related deaths are to be examined as well.

James McMenamin, 29, died after he was knocked down by a PSNI Land Rover on Belfast's Springfield Road in June 2005.

Nearly a year later Steven Colwell, 23, was shot dead by police after he failed to stop in a stolen car at a checkpoint in Ballynahinch, County Down, in April 2006.

A subsequent police ombudsman's report into the incident found the actions of the officer who opened fire to be "critically flawed".

In each of the cases it is claimed that the state and the coroner breached their obligations to ensure prompt human rights-compliant investigations into the deaths.

A potential resolution to the joint judicial review challenge is now understood to be close to agreement.

Counsel for the Department of Justice, featuring in the case as an umbrella state body, has already signalled that a proposal has been made to deal with the issues.

A protocol for disclosing documents to the coroner is believed to feature in the plans.

In court today Mr Justice Stephens fixed a date in March to finalise issues and to deal with the remaining issue of compensation being sought.

One of those close to the proceedings predicted the outcome of that hearing could have consequences for more than 70 other deaths stretching back into the Troubles.

Padraig O Muirigh, solicitor for all five families, said: "We will be seeking damages at the next hearing for the delay in holding these inquests.

"If this is successful it might have wide-ranging implications for other legacy cases." ends

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