Belfast Telegraph

George Hamilton: Coroners' system is chaotic and needs broad review

The system for serving coroners investigating historical deaths in Northern Ireland is chaotic and needs a broad review, the chief constable said.

Almost 100 legacy deaths, many dating back decades, are being revisited.

PSNI chief George Hamilton said his primary concern lay with bereaved families waiting so long but criticised lack of "prioritisation" by coroners.

He told the Policing Board: "It is chaotic, people are going from one inquest to the next depending on which coroner is shouting the most.

"It needs to be more of a whole-system approach."

The Board has called for an inspection of the police's handling of inquests, carried out by Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC), but Justice Minister David Ford has not agreed to order one.

A total of 56 inquests into 94 deaths have yet to be heard.

Thousands of files have to be cleared by police for public airing, and sensitive ones often have to be partly redacted by the Northern Ireland Secretary for national security reasons.

The chief constable added: "I feel a certain frustration myself about how log-jammed the system is, the Lord Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan, he said that the coronial system was inadequate and indeed needed overhaul, I absolutely agree with him on that.

"The problem is that the police have become the focus of attention around delay when actually we are very open to have a look at our processes and if there's things we can fix to speed up our element of it we will do that.

"We have 56 inquests open, none of them prioritised, the prioritisation tends to play its way out in public commentary from coroners that find their way into the media."

He said he wanted to meet the senior coroner and work out a mechanism for ordering cases to meet families' expectations.

"At the moment we have 56 inquests touching upon I think it is 94 deaths and we have people within our legacy unit running about from one inquest to the next depending on what the next deadline is.

"We only act as agents of the coroner, we are there to support the coroner, not to be in some sort of adversarial position with the coroner."

He claimed some of the timescales imposed on cases were arbitrary, without considering what deadlines entailed.

When police did not meet them families were disappointed and that affected confidence in the wider system.

"We are not being obstructive, we are not wanting to cause delay, we want this fixed but it is a bigger problem than policing."

A spokeswoman for the Lord Chief Justice's office said: "The Lord Chief Justice has not yet assumed the role of President of the Coroners Courts and, therefore, does not currently have responsibility for the allocation of coronial resources.

"He has, however, responded positively to recent requests from the Minister of Justice to provide additional judicial resource in order to assist with the outstanding legacy work."

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