Relatives of six men killed by the security forces or loyalist paramilitaries in Northern Ireland have been awarded compensation over delays in holding inquests into the deaths.
A High Court judge awarded £7,500 to a member of each bereaved family after the police, Coroners Service and a number of other state bodies conceded that delays amounted to a breach of human rights.
The six relatives argued that the failure to hold timely inquests breached both the European Convention on Human Rights and the UK’s Human Rights Act.
The applicants involved were:
:: Hugh Jordan, the father of IRA man Patrick Pearse Jordan who was shot and killed by an RUC officer in Belfast on 25 November 1992.
:: Kathleen Ryan, the mother of IRA man Michael Ryan who was shot and killed by members of the SAS in Coagh on 3 June 1991.
:: Christina McCusker, the mother of Fergal McCusker who was shot and killed by loyalist paramilitaries in Maghera on 18 January 1998. The McCusker family have concerns about collusion between paramilitaries and the state in his death.
:: Colette McConville, the mother of Neil McConville who was shot and killed by a PSNI officer near Ballinderry on 29 April 2003 after a car chase.
:: Anne McMenamin, the mother of James Daniel McMenamin who died after being knocked down by a PSNI Land Rover in Belfast on 4 June 2005.
:: Jordan Brown, the son of Stephen Craig Colwell who was shot and killed by a PSNI officer on 16 April 2006 after failing to stop at a police checkpoint.
On the day the judicial review applications were due to be heard, the PSNI, the Coroners Service, the Office of the Police Ombudsman and the Department of Justice - which is responsible for funding the Police Ombudsman and the Coroners Service, and for partly funding the PSNI - conceded that there had been a delay in commencing the inquests which breached the applicants’ human rights.
The court made a declaration to this effect.
Mr Justice Stephens then made the damages awards on the grounds that the applicants had suffered feelings of “frustration, distress and anxiety”.
Mr Jordan was awarded damages for delay in 2001 by the European Court of Human Rights. Justice Stephens said as it took in excess of a further 10 years for the inquest to commence he was entitled to further compensation of £7,500.
In the Jordan case, the judge ordered that the PSNI pay the bill. In the other cases the Department of Justice was ordered to pay.
“The investigation into the death of a close relative impacts on the next of kin at a fundamental level of human dignity,” said the judge.
“It is obvious that if unlawful delays occur in an investigation into the death of a close relative that this will cause feelings of frustration, distress and anxiety to the next of kin.”
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Responding to the court case, Stormont’s Justice Minister David Ford said: “There is no doubt that we need to find a way to deliver legacy inquests in an efficient and cost-effective manner. 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.”
A spokeswoman for the PSNI’s oversight body, the NI Policing Board, said its members would raise the issue with Chief Constable Matt Baggott at the next meeting.
“The Board has raised a series of questions and held a number of discussions with the PSNI on issues relating to the disclosure process and resourcing of the Legacy Support Unit of the PSNI,” she said.
“Whilst it is acknowledged that in some cases the disclosure process can be lengthy and complex, board members have expressed serious concern about the continued delays in the provision of material and the impact for the families involved.
“Board members have also highlighted the impact such delays have on confidence in the PSNI and the criminal justice system. Following a meeting last week members outlined the need for the PSNI to make a public commitment to compliance in these cases and acknowledge past failings to meet legislative requirements.
“Board members will wish to discuss the commentary and findings of the judgment with the Chief Constable at the June Board meeting.”
SDLP board member Dolores Kelly said the decision to award compensation was a “damning indictment” of the PSNI.
“It is a damning indictment of the PSNI and it is regrettable these families have had to return to the courts, adding to their distress and frustration,” she said.
“It has meant they have been unable to move on with their lives.
“The hunger for truth and justice experienced by all of the families of those who lost their lives during the conflict, and in more recent questionable circumstances, underlines again the necessity for all political parties and the British and Irish governments to fulfil the promises made to victims in dealing with the past on a moral and ethical basis.”
Democratic Unionist deputy leader Nigel Dodds noted that many people murdered by paramilitary groups during the Troubles may never get to the truth.
“All families deserve to know the truth about what happened to their loved ones,” he said.
“This is obviously a significant judgment and there will be time needed to examine the full ramifications it might have.
“It is vitally important to remember however that there are many families out there who appear to have no prospect of ever finding out the truth about what happened. Whilst in these cases, there may have been an unacceptable delay in holding inquests, it is understood that a protocol for disclosing documents to the coroner has been put forward by the Department for Justice. Unfortunately for those murdered by terrorist groups, there is no ability to compel any evidence, compounded by the fact that individuals will not even admit their own membership.
“Unfortunately some will attempt to use such rulings to rewrite the history of how state organisations acted through the Troubles. Whilst there has been an unacceptable delay in holding these inquests, all of the organisations have fully complied with everything requested. There are many others however who continually seek to frustrate any attempt to get to the truth behind many murders in Northern Ireland.”