Compensation for inquest delays underlines the need for dealing with the past

Yesterday’s landmark  compensation awards of £7500 each to the families of six men killed by the security forces means that  the logjam of inquests is beginning  to cost  the state money  – money the justice system says it hasn’t got and never will have,  to pay for optimum  legal accountability for the Troubles. As the Guardian reports:

The high court in Belfast ruled on Tuesday that the damages were awarded due to the “frustration, distress and anxiety” suffered by the families. Mr Justice Stephens’ verdict could now lead to hundreds of other families suing state agencies over legacy issues to do with the Troubles and its aftermath.

Ian Cobain wrote a useful backgrounder last month.

What is not disputed is that 16 years after the Good Friday peace agreement was struck, 46 inquests into the killings of 74 people remain outstanding in Northern Ireland.

About half the inquests were opened shortly after the deaths happened but were adjourned and never concluded, while half were reopened in recent years on the orders of John Larkin QC, the attorney general of Northern Ireland, following complaints that the original hearings were fundamentally unfair.

Mark Thompson, director of Relatives for Justice, a non-governmental organisation that works with many of the families, believes police are determined that some of the key documentation about the killings should never see the light of day. “It’s initially a case of deny, deny, deny, then delay, delay, delay,” he said.

Last year a judge at the European court of human rights said that police and soldiers responsible for killings in Northern Ireland could “benefit from virtual impunity” because of the length of the delays.

Meanwhile, the Committee on the Administration of Justice, a Belfast-based human rights group, said: “We retain concerns about protracted delays by the security forces in disclosing information, and limitations on the inquest system itself.”

In particular, the organisation said, the law that prevents inquests in Northern Ireland from recording unlawful killings and requires jury verdicts to be unanimous, needs urgent remedy. Without an unlawful killing verdict, many families hoped for forceful narrative verdicts.

In a post-conflict society that remains deeply divided, and in which there is little agreement on what happened during the Troubles or why, many unionists say they are uneasy at the prospect of inquests being turned into mini public inquiries at which former soldiers and retired police can be compelled to give evidence, but former paramilitaries cannot.

The Ulster Unionists’ position paper on dealing with the past warns that historical inquests “run the risk of establishing a narrative of actions by security force personnel, without a reciprocal narrative concerning terrorist motivation and activity, or any due attention to the security and political context of the time”.

What now?  According to the Belfast Telegraph a  limited response is expected from the Department of justice  but a complete approach can only be part of a more comprehensive approach to dealing with the past. The judgment also shows a court not endorsing  unionist notions of a hierarchy of victims.

Counsel for the Department of Justice, featuring in the case as an umbrella state body, has already signaled that a proposal has been made to deal with the issues….A protocol for disclosing documents to the coroner is believed to feature in the plans.

Justice Minister David Ford said: “While the justice system is taking a number of actions to tackle delay, the reality is that dealing effectively with the past will require a much wider approach agreed by all parties and supported by the governments.”


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