Inquest suspensions to be reviewed

Published Monday, 19 November 2012
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The families of people killed in controversial circumstances have won the first round in a legal battle over a decision to suspend their inquests.

Inquest suspensions to be reviewed
The relatives of those killed have challenged the suspension of the inquests. (© PA)

A High Court judge granted them leave to seek a judicial review of the adjournments by Northern Ireland's senior coroner.

Mr Justice Treacy said they had "comfortably surmounted" the test of establishing an arguable case.

At least 14 inquests ordered by Attorney General John Larkin QC have been put on hold following the decision by coroner John Leckey.

He said that Mr Larkin, appointed chief legal adviser to the Stormont Executive in 2010, may have exceeded his powers because matters of national security could be involved.

The dispute centres on whether the cases should instead have been considered and directed the Advocate General for England and Scotland.

The coroner's decision, announced last Thursday, provoked outrage among relatives of those whose deaths were to be scrutinised.

Lawyers for a number of the families launched legal challenges, claiming the move was unlawful and procedurally unfair.

The deaths which were due to be scrutinised include 11-year-old Francis Rowntree, who was hit by a rubber bullet fired by a soldier in west Belfast in 1972.

Another case involves Gerard Slane, a 27-year-old father of three shot dead by the Ulster Defence Assocation at his home in the city in 1988.

His killing sparked claims of collusion between loyalist paramilitaries and the security forces.

I propose to grant leave on all of the grounds. The applicant has comfortably surmounted the modest threshold of establishing an arguable case.

Mr Justice Treacy

Karen Quinlivan QC, representing some of the families, argued that former Advocate General Baroness Scotland appeared to have considered the cases.

She also contended that the coroner did not have the power to suspend the inquests two years after they were ordered.

In such cases the power to direct an inquest rests with the advocate general for England and Wales since national security matters are not a devolved power.

She added that Mr Leckey should have brought High Court challenges rather than invoke a blanket suspension.

Proceedings were also brought on behalf of relatives of Gerard Casey, murdered by the Ulster Freedom Fighters in Rasharkin, Co Antrim in 1989; Danny Doherty and William Fleming, shot dead by the SAS in Derry in 1984; and Francis Bradley, killed by the SAS near Castledawson, Co Derry in 1986.

It was argued that Baroness Scotland looked at those cases and then transferred them to Mr Larkin following the devolution of justice powers to Northern Ireland.

Mr Justice Treacy was told she would only have done so if they raised no potential national security issues.

At one point in the hearing the judge referred to the rubber bullet killing of Francis Rowntree.

"It's difficult to see what the national security issues are likely to be in that case," he said.

Nicolas Hanna QC, for the coroner, said he was not in a position to deal with individual facts.

He stressed that Mr Leckey was merely seeking clarification, rather than deciding against holding the inquests.

"A query has been raised in good faith and a question thrown up by the legislation as to whether the proper person directed the inquests," Mr Hanna said.

The barrister argued it would have been worse to press ahead, only for any findings to be nullified due to a technicality.

He added: "It was reasonable for the coroners to raise the matter in the way they did and to say 'We are not taking any action until clarification is received'."

However, Mr Justice Treacy ruled that the families had done enough to warrant the challenge progressing to a full judicial review hearing.

A further hearing will now take place in February next year.

© UTV News
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