Belfast Telegraph

Top judge tells of frustration at slow progress on legacy cases

By Michael McHugh

Only one legacy inquest from the Troubles is expected to be heard next year, Northern Ireland's most senior judge has said.

Lord Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan again highlighted the lack of progress on dealing with the past as senior judges marked the start of the new legal year in Belfast.

"A lack of resources has in particular constrained our ability to deal with the backlog of legacy inquests, for which I was made responsible nearly two years ago," said Sir Declan.

"It remains a source of deep frustration to me that I have still not received a response to the proposals I put forward over 18 months ago for dealing with the matters for which I have been given responsibility."

When he assumed the presidency of the coroners' courts in November 2015, there were 55 cases, involving 96 deaths, and since then two further legacy cases have been referred.

Four cases have been completed since then and findings are awaited in another three cases.

There are two cases currently at hearing and a further three cases are listed for hearing by the end of December.

Sir Declan added: "That leaves us with 45 cases, many of which are hugely complex and for which we have not had the resources to carry out the substantial preparatory work that will be required to allow these cases to progress to inquest.

"In the 2018 calendar year, we anticipate just one further inquest being heard."

Sir Declan had put forward a five-year plan in February 2016 to deal with the inquests, all of them decades old.

He had requested £10m, but the funding was blocked by former first minister Arlene Foster.

The DUP leader said it wouldn't move on the issue until there was more discussion over how the victims of terrorism could achieve justice.

She also suggested that "there has been an imbalance in relation to state killings as opposed to paramilitary killings".

Meanwhile, paper-free courts are being planned as judges in Northern Ireland embrace the digital age. Online dispute resolution and virtual or remote proceedings are among other developments proposed.

Two reports yesterday contained more than 400 recommendations for change, aimed at improving access to justice and users' experience of the legal system.

The way our courts deal with children and family disputes could also be revamped. Proposals include encouraging mediation for separated parents as an alternative to court hearings and a single family court to replace the current three-tier system.

Lord Justice Gillen said: "While we have signalled our clear commitment to becoming digital by default - which includes moving towards paperless courts, online dispute resolution and other forms of digital justice, such as virtual or remote proceedings - we recognise that the implementation of such reforms will require strategic patience and a need to progress on an incremental basis."

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