Appeal Court hears challenge to ruling on “smoke filled rooms” deal on Victims Commission

When, in June last year, the Belfast High Court ruled against the legal challenge to the appointment of four Victims Commissioners by then-First Minister, Ian Paisley Snr, and deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness – who were not subpoenaed about their un-documented and witness-free meetings, in office, about the eventual appointments – Mr Justice Gillen argued that “the process of joint decision making which will command public trust and confidence is a fragile flower which requires careful tending”. The appeal against that ruling has now begun, as UTV note here.

Challenging the dismissal of Ms Williamson’s judicial review application in the Court of Appeal, Barry Macdonald QC gave two reasons why the case was so important. He said it concerned the protection of victims’ interests for years to come, and how the First and Deputy First Ministers exercise joint authority under Northern Ireland’s new constitutional arrangements. Mr Macdonald claimed no consultation took place before four commissioners were appointed, and that the decision-making process had “all the hallmarks of secret negotiations which were designed to stay secret”. He contended: “They drew a veil of secrecy over their discussions and have gone to great lengths to prevent anyone, including the court, from piercing the veil.”

According to the barrister officials were excluded from private meetings where not a single note was taken. The court heard Mr Paisley and Mr McGuinness declined to answer questions in the judicial review proceedings and successfully resisted attempts to have them give evidence. Mr Macdonald said he recognised their right to rely on every legal defence open to them to prevent disclosure of this material. “But the fact that they have done so in order to shield themselves from any scrutiny is a matter which, in our submission, can be relied upon by the court,” he argued.

As BBC NI political editor Mark Devenport said of the earlier ruling

In short, this judgment looks to have cut the legs off any future attempt to judicially review the OFMDFM and to provide a “carte blanche” for meetings without officials and note takers present.

But never fear, if you disagree in the future with an OFMDFM decision, you don’t need to turn to the courts, because our ministers, as Mr Justice Gillen notes “are accountable to the Assembly where they are likely to be questioned and scrutinised”. And we all know just how effective the Assembly has been at carrying out that job in the past.

Which is one of the reasons why the Speaker needs to think very carefully about how he rules on a recent point of order…