Legacy inquests 'need resources'
Conducting human rights compliant inquests into some legacy killings in Northern Ireland will become impossible if the state does not commit additional resources to the process, the region's senior coroner has warned.
In a bleak assessment of the logjams facing the coronial system, John Leckey said the Government had to take steps to fix the problems or it would find itself breaching the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).
Article 2 of the ECHR stipulates that investigations into contentious killings must be timely.
In a strongly worded eight-page statement read out by Mr Leckey at a preliminary inquest hearing in Belfast, he was also highly critical of the length of time it is taking the PSNI to disclose relevant case files to the Coroners Service.
The senior coroner was addressing lawyers involved in a series of inquests that have been particularly hit by disclosure delays, the so-called "shoot to kill" cases.
Mr Leckey said he intended to write to Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers to call for action.
Among his requests was the establishment of an independent mechanism to ensure state agencies fulfilled obligations and met deadlines to disclose documents.
"In addition I will point to the urgent need for more resources to be made available to me if meaningful progress is to be achieved," he said.
"The considered opinion of myself and my team is that if sufficient resources are not provided the holding of Article 2 compliant inquests will become an impossibility."
Around 50 legacy inquests, some dating back to the early 1970s, have still to be heard, with the system hampered by long-standing delays in achieving disclosure of relevant state papers.
The police, Army and Government have all been repeatedly criticised for the length of time it is taking to hand over files.
While critics claim the state is engaging in deliberate delaying tactics, officials and lawyers representing the bodies continually stress the huge resource implications of security vetting millions of documents.
In a number of cases the state has been ordered by the courts to pay compensation to bereaved families for the delays.
The coronial system's future role in handling historic Troubles cases is one of the issues being addressed in the political talks process at Stormont.
Mr Leckey specifically addressed the problems facing the "shoot to kill" inquests today.
The controversial cases involve six people, including IRA men and a Catholic teenager, who were shot dead by security forces around the Lurgan and Armagh areas during 1982.
As part of the probe, Mr Leckey is also examining the deaths of three RUC officers in a bomb blast in Lurgan weeks earlier. That attack was allegedly carried out by the IRA members and therefore viewed by some as the motivation for the deployment of "shoot to kill" in their deaths.
The delays have been blamed on the need to vet two top-secret investigations into the killings.
The classified investigations involved in the inquests were carried out by then-Greater Manchester Police deputy chief constable John Stalker and Sir Colin Sampson, of West Yorkshire Police, in the 1980s but never published.
Mr Leckey noted that 32 years had passed since the incidents and four coroners had presided over attempts to hold inquests. He said his involvement started seven years ago when he initiated a fresh bid to hold the probes.
"After the passage of over seven years the disclosure process is incomplete," he said.
"That is entirely unacceptable to me and that is something I have made clear on a number of occasions."
He added: "There is, in my view, no valid reason that has been advanced for the failure by the PSNI to complete the disclosure process in that time."
Mr Leckey said the issue was not solely the fault of the PSNI.
He bemoaned the fact legislation did not enable him to compel state agencies to meet timetables.
But he focused on the resources the state was directing to those engaged in the coronial process, including the police and his own offices.
He said if the Government acknowledged that the inquest system was how it intended to discharge its ECHR obligations to investigate deaths then more resources had to be committed.
In particular he called for the hiring of coroners investigators with dedicated support and IT backup, funding for forensic re-examination of exhibits and the provision of a larger legal and administrative team.
A solicitor for two of the families involved in the "shoot to kill" inquests, Niall Murphy, accused the state of failing to discharge its obligations.
"Our clients understand the frustrations of the senior coroner and agree that the situation pertaining to these inquests is lamentable and intolerable," he said.
"However our clients are of the firm view that the main ingredient missing, which is frustrating the lawful progress of these inquests, is the honourable and trustworthy engagement of the state.
"These Inquests can work if the state is willing to discharge its obligations, however it has been the regretful fact that the state are more interested in institutional reputation than legal compliance."
He added: "Our clients will insist that their right to coronial investigations into the killing of their loved ones is upheld and look forward to the state embracing its legal obligations under the ECHR rather than shirking its responsibilities."