Grieving families awaiting fresh inquests into incidents from Northern Ireland’s troubled past have been assured efforts are under way to ensure their cases are heard in the next five years.
Presiding coroner Mrs Justice Keegan told a packed courtroom of family members and lawyers on Friday that work has been ongoing to ensure the plan of a five year timeframe set by Lord Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan can be delivered.
She outlined some of this work, including a dedicated legacy inquest unit based at Laganside House.
“Each outstanding legacy inquest is listed for hearing in September of this year, and at those preliminary hearings I will look individually at each inquest and hear about particular issues in that inquest,” she said.
“I want you to be assured that even with limited resources, matters have not stood still since the Lord Chief Justice met with families in February 2016.
“Since then seven legacy inquests have been completed, six legacy inquests are currently at hearing or awaiting findings, and I anticipate that those inquests will be completed in the coming months.”
Mrs Justice Keegan said a schedule has been set to hear preliminary hearings into all the outstanding cases with the exception of the Stalker Sampson cases into an alleged RUC shoot-to-kill policy in the 1980s which involved nine deaths, adding that a date for that hearing will be set in due course.
She told Belfast Coroner’s Court, sitting at the Royal Courts of Justice, that there is a current legacy caseload of 54 cases relating to 95 deaths, including three cases relating to three deaths referred to the coroner by the attorney general since December 2018.
The outstanding cases include the shooting of eight IRA men killed by the SAS at Loughgall in 1987 and the murder of Raymond McCord Junior by the UVF in 1997.
Mrs Justice Keegan said the coroner has “no control over what deaths are referred”, adding: “Nevertheless, no matter how a legacy inquest has come into the jurisdiction of the coroner, once it does, the coroner is under an obligation to deal with it in accordance with the relevant principles.”
She also said that inquests are inquiries into the circumstances surrounding a death, and not a criminal trial.
The presiding coroner said she expects the first of the full inquests to start being heard next April.
Mrs Justice Keegan also revealed that a “thematic approach” is being considered to avoid the potential of missing a “bigger picture”.
“The Lord Chief Justice has previously spoken of a thematic approach to listing the inquests, following discussions he had with the international human rights community about the principles which should underpin an Article 2 compliant model for dealing with legacy cases,” she told the court.
“The United Nations special rapporteur and the Council of Europe’s human rights commissioner expressed concerns to the Lord Chief Justice about the piecemeal nature of the inquests and warned we could miss the bigger picture if we focus solely on a series of individual cases.
“In other words, without the full context, the inquest could be incomplete in some cases.”
She closed her statement to court by warning people not to underestimate the task at hand.
“It is important not to underestimate the immensity and complexity of the task of having legacy inquests heard within a five-year period starting in 2020,” she told the court.
“However, along with the Lord Chief Justice and my other judicial colleagues, we are committed to dealing with these cases which have now been in our system for some time.”
Northern Ireland’s Justice Department plans to release £55 million over six years to deal with outstanding legacy inquests.
Sir Declan Morgan’s plan to clear a backlog involving cases which are decades old had been delayed by political disagreement over legacy.
Sir Declan requested money from the Stormont Executive to address the backlog but it was blocked by former DUP first minister Arlene Foster.