Deliver legacy inquest unit or face 'bleak' future, criminal justice chief warns
Families waiting for long-delayed legacy inquests face a bleak future unless the political will is found to deliver stalled reforms of the coronial system, Northern Ireland's leading criminal justice inspector has warned.
Brendan McGuigan, chief inspector with Criminal Justice Inspection Northern Ireland (CJINI), highlighted the "transformative" potential of a new unit proposed by the region's top judge as he published a report on the police's role in the slow-moving process.
Around 50 legacy cases, some relating to Troubles killings 45 years ago, have yet to be heard.
In February, Northern Ireland's Lord Chief Justice, Sir Declan Morgan, proposed that a specialist unit be set up that could deal with the cases within five years.
However, politicians have yet to agree to stump up the £10 million needed to fund the process.
"The key to unlocking this is additional resource to support the initiative that I think the Lord Chief Justice has shown great leadership on," said Mr McGuigan.
"This is a once-in-a-generational opportunity to really move these issues on.
"Without these, it's very bleak. I think we will have more of the same and I think the frustration and hurt and feelings of families will not be dealt with at all."
The money to fund the new unit will be accessed as part of a Government financial package addressing a range of issues related to Northern Ireland's toxic past.
The package of mechanisms to deal with the wider legacy of the Troubles is stuck in the starting blocks due to a dispute between Sinn Fein and the Government on the potential of state papers being withheld from families on the grounds of national security.
While the row relates to the workings of a new historical investigations unit, the Democratic Unionists have refused to sign off on funding the outstanding inquests until consensus is reached on all aspects of the package.
In recent years, police have faced heavy criticism for the time they take to security vet and disclose documents to the coroner.
Former justice minister David Ford asked the CJINI to assess the cause of the logjams.
Mr McGuigan said while the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) was fulfilling its statutory responsibility to disclose material, a number of factors were causing delays around case progression.
"Legacy inquest proceedings have through time become adversarial rather than inquisitorial in nature," he said.
"As a result, the processes to support the disclosure of sensitive and non-sensitive material in legacy inquests have become complex, convoluted and risk-averse."
He urged coroners' lawyers to get more involved in the disclosure process at an early stage so police time was not taken up security-vetting papers that ultimately would not be relevant to the inquest.
"This approach would ensure irrelevant material was excluded from the process, therefore reducing the volume of information sent to the Crown Solicitors Office for review and on to the Coroners Service," he said.
Mr McGuigan also recommended that the PSNI review its approach to redaction and security classification, amid concerns they were sometimes over-cautious in holding back information that had already entered the public domain by other routes.
He said: "I am concerned that unless the political will to resolve the current situation becomes explicit through a combination of legislative reform, investment in IT solutions and targeted resourcing in terms of finance and staffing, the likelihood of change occurring is limited."