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Clash over inquests between the coroner and the Attorney General to be resolved in High Court

Wed 19 December 2012, 6:39pm

Good news for the families, that a new inquest will be held on the victims of the Hillsborough disaster, on application by the Attorney General for England and Wales Dominic Grieve to the High Court in London.

The lord chief justice said it was “inevitable” that the emergence of fresh evidence about how and why the 96 victims died made it “desirable and reasonable for a fresh inquest to be heard”.

“However distressing or unpalatable, the truth will be brought to light,” Lord Judge said. “In this way, the families of those who died in the disaster will be properly respected. Our earnest wish is the new inquest will not be delayed for a moment longer than necessary

What are the chances of a new inquest for Pat Finucane and other Northern Ireland cases  under Article 2, the Right to Life of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR)?

Good, it seemed, judging from the decision of the NI Attorney General in other cases, as The Detail noted

The judgment from the Supreme Court, which was formerly known as the House of Lords, to significantly increase the role of coroners in Northern Ireland follows a decision by Attorney General John Larkin to refer a series of controversial deaths back to the coroners’ court for fresh investigation….The Detail understands that since he took up office in April 2010, Mr Larkin has referred 11 cases back to the coroner, including several conflict-related deaths.He is understood to be actively considering at least 11 other cases for possible for new investigation.

But now Larkin’s authority was questioned by John Lecky, Northern Ireland’s senior coroner on 15 November.

He suddenly suspended inquests into a dozen controversial killings because of potential national security concerns.  A decision to apply for new inquests he argues, should have been made by the same Dominic Grieve, acting as Advocate General for NI – the office that deals with UK level matters relating to NI

Fiona Doherty, a barrister for the family of Francis Rowntree, who was hit by a rubber bullet fired in disputed circumstances by British troops during rioting in the lower Falls area of Belfast in April 1972, said: “This is a bolt out of the blue.”

Mr Leckey is to write to Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers and the attorney general after he received an expert legal opinion on the matter seeking clarification.

He told today’s hearing in Belfast that Northern Ireland’s coroners had arrived at a view that the attorney general may acted outside his powers (ultra vires).

“Clearly the attorney general takes a view as to his jurisdiction and powers which is diametrically opposed.

Costs of around £6 million a year may be an additional restraining factor in about 30 legacy cases.

Killings which occurred before the UK Human Rights Act 1998 can be reviewed directly under Article 2 of  the ECHR. The terms of the new inquests  can range more broadly than the old ( and widely discredited)  very limited NI terms of  “by what means” the victim was killed ( i.e. he was shot by a gun), to add “ and under what circumstances” which greatly widens the coroner’s scope – but at his discretion.  The High Court has now granted leave to a number of the families to judicially review the suspensions, and that challenge will be heard in February 2013.

What’s the betting on the High Court decision?

Just prior to the suspensions Larkin himself warned of the limitations of inquests.

(He) said that while he would continue to order inquests into Troubles deaths where he saw fit, “it is clear to me that a comprehensive approach to our troubled past cannot come from inquests alone”.

He said: “Inquests are undoubtedly valuable – and in some cases are clearly required by Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights – but they cannot, it seems to me, deliver satisfactory outcomes for families whose primary wish is to see successful prosecutions, nor can they offer an effective vehicle for the exploration of broader themes and factors that have shaped our recent past.”

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