Belfast Telegraph

Justice Dept bids to overturn ruling it failed to provide murder probe resources

By Alan Erwin

A Stormont department has launched a bid to overturn a ruling that it unlawfully failed to provide enough resources for the Police Ombudsman to examine alleged flaws in an RUC probe into a loyalist murder 35 years ago.

In March a High Court judge held that systemic and persistent government underfunding is impeding the watchdog's attempts to investigate complaints against police within a reasonable time.

His verdict came in a legal challenge mounted after the family of victim Patrick Murphy were told the Ombudsman's inquiry was not expected to be completed until 2025.

But lawyers for the Department of Justice are challenging the outcome, stressing the competing pressures on its limited finances.

Peter Coll QC told the Court of Appeal it "cannot simply be blind to other funding demands on resources available to it".

Judgment was reserved following the hearing before three senior judges.

Mr Murphy was shot dead on his 63rd birthday as he served customers at his grocer's shop on Belfast's Mount Merrion Avenue in November 1982.

No-one has ever been convicted for the sectarian killing believed to have been carried out by the UVF.

The victim's family lodged a complaint with the Police Ombudsman about how the murder investigation was handled in 2004 and again in 2009.

They raised concerns about alleged failings and missed opportunities in the course of the probe.

But in 2014 they were told that staffing levels within the unit of the Ombudsman's office dealing with their case had been reduced by 25%.

With budgetary cuts also imposed, the family was informed that the relevant programme of investigations could not be completed before 2025.

Mr Murphy's 68-year-old daughter, Patricia Bell, launched judicial review proceedings against the Ombudsman and the Department of Justice over the investigative delays.

During the original hearing counsel for the watchdog conceded it was in breach of its statutory duty to investigate within a reasonable time.

Ms Bell's lawyers described Ombudsman Dr Michael Maguire and his team as "blameless".

Instead, they argued that the Department was frustrating an obligation imposed on it by Parliament to allocate sufficient funding.

Backing their case, a High Court judge held that the problem lay with the Department's failure to provide adequate resources.

He declared the situation unreasonable and unlawful, disabling the Ombudsman from meeting its demands in a range of cases over a period of years.

But appealing the ruling, Mr Coll argued that insufficient consideration was given to other considerations facing the Department.

"It cannot simply be the case that it's accepted... there's a discretion, but then in circumstances such as this it's not possible for the Department in exercising its discretion to take account of other funding demands."

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