Inquest delay compensation a 'damning indictment' of the PSNI - Dolores Kelly
The awarding of damages to relatives of six men over unlawful delays in the holding of inquests is "a damning indictment" of the PSNI, it has been claimed.
In a landmark ruling, the High Court awarded £7,500 each to the families after accepting that compensation was necessary for the frustration, distress and anxiety the delays had caused.
Mr Justice Stephens' ruling could open the floodgates for scores of other claims involving so-called legacy cases.
Court records show that 46 legacy inquests relating to 75 deaths in Northern Ireland remain outstanding.
In most cases the delays have been caused by legal disputes over the disclosure of sensitive files.
SDLP MLA Dolores Kelly, who sits on the Policing Board, accused Chief Constable Matt Baggott of failing to deliver closure to victims' families.
"I have asked the Chief Constable on numerous occasions about the delays in inquests and urged him to seek additional resources," she said.
"However, Matt Baggott's failure to do so compounded the grief of the families who lost loved ones, as Justice Stephens rightly said.
"It is a damning indictment of the PSNI and it is regrettable these families have had to return to the courts, adding to their distress. It has meant they have been unable to move on with their lives."
Relatives of the six men, who were all killed in controversial circumstances, issued proceedings against the coroner and either the PSNI, Police Ombudsman's Office or Ministry of Defence.
The cases included the deaths of IRA men Pearse Jordan and Michael Ryan at the hands of the security forces; and Fergal McCusker, who was kidnapped and shot dead by loyalist paramilitaries.
The other three involved are Neil McConville, the first person to be shot and killed by the PSNI following a car chase; Jim McMenamin, who was knocked down by a PSNI Land Rover; and Steven Colwell, who was shot dead by police after failing to stop at a checkpoint.
Lawyers for all six families claimed their human rights had been breached by the failure to examine the circumstances surrounding each death as soon as possible.
In each of the cases it was argued that the state and the coroner breached their obligations to ensure prompt human rights-compliant investigations into the deaths.
Counsel for the Department of Justice, featuring in the case as an umbrella state body, has already signaled 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.
But with no confirmation on whether there was an entitlement to compensation it was left to the judge to decide.
According to Mr Justice Stephens, the investigation into the death of a close relative impacts on the next of kin at a fundamental level of human dignity.
He held that all of the applicants must have suffered by the delays, and awarded each of them £7,500 in damages.
Five of the payouts were made against the Department of Justice, while the verdict in the Jordan case was against the PSNI.
Justice Minister David Ford said: "While the justice system is taking a number of actions to tackle delay, the reality is that dealing effectively with the past will require a much wider approach agreed by all parties and supported by the governments."
A Policing Board spokesperson said members would discuss the findings with the Chief Constable next month.
James McMenamin was struck by a PSNI Land Rover on the Springfield Road in west Belfast in June 2005. The crash happened about 1am as police were responding to an emergency call. Mr McMenamin, from Glenalina Road, died at the scene. In a subsequent report, then Police Ombudsman Nuala O'Loan said there was "nothing to suggest that this was anything other than a tragic accident".
The 21-year-old from Bleary, Co Armagh, was shot following a car pursuit in April 2003. Officers were following the vehicle he was driving on the suspicion that it was being used to transport a firearm. Police opened fire amid fears he was about to drive over an officer already knocked down. He was shot three times, becoming the first person to be killed by the PSNI. A shotgun recovered from the car was unloaded.
A member of the IRA's East Tyrone Brigade, he was one of three men shot and killed by the SAS as they travelled through Coagh in a stolen car in June 1991. Eight soldiers opened fire on the vehicle with 200 bullets, causing it to burst into flames. It was claimed the trio were preparing to assassinate a UDR officer. The IRA later said the men were on "active service". A coroner said the men's inquests should open this year.
The 23-year-old was shot on the Falls Road in west Belfast in 1992. Witnesses said Mr Jordan, from New Barnsley Drive in Ballymurphy, died after being shot three times in the back by the RUC while running away from a stolen car hijacked by the IRA. In October 2012 an inquest failed to reach agreement on key aspects. Earlier this year Mr Justice Stephens indicated a new tribunal should sit without a jury.
The 23-year-old father of one was shot dead by police while driving a stolen car in Ballynahinch in April 2006. He was attempting to drive away from a police checkpoint. The officer involved told the Police Ombudsman's office he shot Mr Colwell because he believed he was deliberately trying to run him over, and his life was in danger. Mr Colwell had an address in Cullybackey, but was originally from Belfast.
The 28-year-old was shot by the LVF after being abducted as he left a bar in Maghera in January 1998. His body was found the next morning at the rear of a youth club, close to a Catholic church. The McCusker family have concerns about collusion between loyalist paramilitaries and state agents in his death. Mr McCusker had recently returned from the US where he had been living and working for several months.