Tens of thousands of lawsuits could be launched by people unlawfully jailed in Northern Ireland for non-payment of fines, it was claimed today.
As senior judges paved the way for a decision on the scale of damages open to those wrongly detained, one lawyer predicted the floodgates will now open on false imprisonment claims.
But the Northern Ireland Courts Service is to resist any pay-outs by claiming judicial immunity from an action for negligence.
A landmark judgment has identified a series of breaches in the current system of custody warrants.
Judicial review challenges had been brought by men imprisoned for not meeting fines imposed at the Magistrates' Court.
They contested the length of time taken by police to act and claimed that anyone arrested on a money warrant should first be brought before a court before being taken into custody.
In March, a panel of judges held that the process was unlawful due to this lack of judicial oversight.
Lawyers returned to the High Court today to discuss possible remedies in the case.
Tony McGleenan QC, for the Courts Service, confirmed his client's intention to seek immunity from negligence based on the 1947 Crown Proceedings Act, a piece of legislation dealing with civil liabilities.
Mr McGleenan cited a decision by the English Court of Appeal in a case where a six-week prison term was wrongly imposed.
But following discussions Lord Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan, sitting with Lord Justice Girvan and Mr Justice Treacy, held that the judicial review cases should be converted into writ actions.
He said: "The reason for that in part is obviously that damages claims are likely to emerge, not just from these applicants, but others who may be affected by the ruling."
Sir Declan suggested another High Court judge will have to take control of expected "multi-party litigation".
He added: "He would, we would envisage, take test cases in order to look at development of a scale and deal with any preliminary issues that might arise."
An order for legal costs was also made in favour of those who brought the challenge.
Although it is understood around 30 claims have so far been lodged since the judgment in March, legal sources are anticipating many more will follow.
Each of them could be eligible for thousands of pounds in damages if their claims are upheld, according to one informed estimate.
Outside the court solicitor Mark O'Connor of Larkin O'Connor Cassidy predicted the outcome of the decision to convert proceedings into actions for damages.
He said: "The lord Chief Justice has indicated that he envisages these matters may be before the High Court as a test case to set the limit for damages.
"This would open the floodgates to potentially tens of thousands of claims for damages as far back as 1981."
In a statement the Police Service of Northern Ireland pointed out it was under a duty to enforce all court orders, including the execution of money warrants, presented on behalf of the Northern Ireland Courts and Tribunal Service.
It added: "Accordingly the PSNI had always understood they were adhering to a judicial direction.
"There is no criticism of the PSNI in the judgement. Accordingly, the PSNI are reviewing the judgment and are considering legal advice as to our options."