A LAWYER for relatives of a GAA official abducted and murdered by loyalists has welcomed a police undertaking to pass case files to the coroner's office.
The development is significant in the long-delayed bid by the family of Sean Brown to have an inquest held, their solicitor Kevin Winters told a preliminary hearing in Belfast.
But the inquest may still not proceed until 2014 after it emerged that a fresh investigation by the Historical Enquiries Team (HET) could take until the end of the year to be completed.
Mr Brown (61) was abducted by loyalists as he locked up the Wolfe Tone GAA club at Bellaghy, Co Derry, in May 1997.
The married father-of-six, who was chairman of the club, was shot multiple times in the head and his body was dumped around 10 miles away near Randalstown.
At yesterday's hearing, which was attended by Mr Brown's son Damien, Northern Ireland's senior coroner John Leckey described the killing as "one of the most despicable murders" that had occurred in the region.
Mr Leckey's representatives are required to examine 40 boxes of police files on the case ahead of any inquest - an exercise which would deal with issues of disclosure and redaction.
A lawyer for the PSNI informed the court that the files would be available for reading within days.
Mr Winters welcomed the move.
"The family is concerned about the passing of time," he said.
"If the papers are transferred this week that's a significant matter. And on that basis we would be reasonably satisfied on the basis of time scale."
But Mr Winters stressed that the family did not want the inquest to proceed until the HET's investigation and report were complete.
Earlier solicitor for the coroner's office Fiona Doherty told Mr Leckey that originally it had been understood that the HET report was due at the end of 2012. But she said that information had been incorrect.
"It appears there is a considerable amount of work to be done by the HET," she said.
"It may be the end of the year before that work is progressed."
Ken Boyd, representing the PSNI, apologised for the error and explained there had been confusion in communication between the police's legacy support unit and the HET.
Richard Ferguson, also on behalf of the police, said the HET report was due at the end of 2013 not 2012.
Mr Leckey acknowledged that the HET report may high-light issues that would need to be examined at the inquest.
"Families do not want inquests to be heard until HET reports [are complete]," he said.
"I have been willing to hold inquests but that's what's been put to me."
■ COURT: Above, Sean Brown. Right, outside the coroner's court in Belfast are from left, Mr Brown's son Damien, solicitor Kevin Winters and Paul O'Connor from the Pat Finucane Centre
PICTURE, RIGHT: Paul Faith/PA