Justice system staff should consider making a request to be bumped up the coronavirus vaccination queue, a coroner has suggested.
Coroner Paddy McGurgan made the comment as a number of inquests are experiencing delays due to the impact of the pandemic.
A preliminary hearing into the death of former IRA member Kevin McGuigan on Tuesday was told of continuing difficulties accessing sensitive police files.
More than 90,000 Covid-19 vaccinations have been administered so far in Northern Ireland to health workers and the most vulnerable.
Over 80s are receiving the jab this week in the ongoing rollout.
Mr McGurgan queried whether those in the legal profession and criminal justice system should be prioritised for vaccination.
Peter Coll QC, representing the PSNI, noted a media report that the legal bar in Dublin has requested that in servicing the criminal justice system, they should be moved up the line in the Irish Republic.
Mr McGurgan responded: “I wonder is that something in all seriousness, whether or not the bar here, the legal profession and the policing and justice sector in general should be considering if it is going to have a knock on impact to hearings.
“That’s obviously for another discussion elsewhere but certainly it’s something that we should consider.”
Mr Coll told the hearing he was unable to provide a time frame for access to PSNI file vaults to examine documents related to the McGuigan case.
“There are some current pandemic difficulties that are effectively making it difficult to ascertain further timescale on the part of police,” he said.
“Working arrangements are extremely difficult to allow people to work in a way that is compliant with the requirements of public health at the moment.”
I think it goes much further than Covid, I think there is a real resourcing issue at play hereCoroner Paddy McGurgan
Laura McMahon, representing Mr McGuigan’s family, said they have been raising access to materials as an ongoing issue before the pandemic.
“It would be good to have some sort of time frame in place so that the families could at least be reassured that matters were moving forward, even slowly,” she said.
She added: “We would be anxious that there would be no conflation or reliance on Covid in a way that would only serve to prolong the production of the materials necessary for this, given the listing date is in May.”
Mr McGurgan said he will be meeting with the PSNI’s deputy chief constable (Mark Hamilton) to discuss the issue, which he said is arising regularly.
“I have serious concerns about the delays that non-legacy inquests are facing,” he said.
“I think it goes much further than Covid, I think there is a real resourcing issue at play here.
“I think there needs to be a bit of lateral thinking as to how we can move these matters forward. I don’t think it is sufficient for senior counsel, their instructions are, go to the preliminary hearing and tell the coroner that we can’t give them any timetable, I just don’t think that is satisfactory.”
He pressed Mr Coll to go back to the PSNI and push for “lateral thinking” to allow his staff access to the facility at Seapark to look at the material.
“Covid is with us for some time to come, we just can’t grind to a halt,” he said.
“I do want some movement and surely an organisation with the resources of the PSNI – some features can be put in place to facilitate this matter forward.”
Counsel for the coroner Philip Henry said he felt there is a “will on the part of the PSNI to try and work with us to find a solution”.
The inquest is scheduled to start from May 10 for two weeks.
Mr McGuigan, a father of nine, was gunned down in the Short Strand in Belfast in August 2015.
The murder prompted a political crisis at Stormont amid claims IRA members were involved in the killing.
This led to a period of instability with the DUP ministers engaging in a series of rolling resignations in protest at the IRA’s alleged involvement in the shooting.