Northern Ireland

Legacy Act an ‘unlawful attempt to dismantle’ justice system in Northern Ireland, Appeal Court hears

Counsel for some victims of the conflict claimed the new legislation is aimed at protecting British veterans

The judgment was delivered at the Court of Appeal in Belfast
(Liam McBurney/PA)

The UK Government’s controversial Troubles Legacy Act is an unlawful attempt to “dismantle” the justice system in Northern Ireland, the Appeal Court heard on Thursday.

Counsel for some victims of the conflict claimed the new legislation is aimed at protecting British veterans rather than achieving reconciliation in the region.

Responding in the Government’s bid to overturn a finding that parts of the Act breaches human rights laws, Jude Bunting KC also argued that unrepentant killers could obtain complete amnesties.

“It is seeking to dismantle the status quo (by ending prosecutions, inquests and civil claims,” he submitted.

Passed last September, the Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Act offers potential immunities to those accused of killings during more than 30 years of sectarian violence in the region.

It also brought a halt to civil litigation and inquests not completed by the cut-off date of May 1.

The government has described the fiercely-opposed legislation as an attempt to draw a line under Northern Ireland’s troubled past.

It involved the establishment of an Independent Commission for Reconciliation and Information Recovery (ICRIR) where self-confessed perpetrators who fully cooperate with the legacy body may be offered amnesty from prosecution.

Legal challenges to the act were mounted amid criticism from victims’ organisations, political parties and the Irish Government, a raft of judicial review challenges were brought by some of those who either lost loved ones or were injured in the conflict.

Lawyers representing some of those who either lost loved ones or were injured in the Troubles claimed the legislation is unconstitutional and denies access to justice.

The real aim was protecting security force personnel from prosecution for any wrongdoing in Northern Ireland, they alleged.

In February, the High Court ruled that the potential granting of immunity under the Act breaches the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).

A judge also declared that sections of the legislation shutting down Troubles-related civil actions and prohibiting new claims is incompatible with Article 6 of the Convention and the Windsor Framework.

Challenging those findings, counsel for the Secretary of State insisted it was a parliamentary-endorsed attempt to achieve reconciliation in Northern Ireland.

But Mr Bunting argued that the government had other objectives.

“The act denies victims the justice that they seek,” he contended.

“A key purpose of this legislation was not reconciliation but the protection of veterans.”

The barrister cited a statement in parliament during the legislative process where the secretary of state pledged to provide certainty for those fearing investigation over their service in Northern Ireland.

“Right from the start that was the purpose of the Act, that’s why it was formulated in the way it was formulated,” Mr Bunting said.

With the 1998 Good Friday Agreement identified as a point when there was a cessation in violence, he insisted: “Bringing the Troubles to an end cannot be relied upon as a purpose of this act.”

He also submitted that the High Court has already found there was no evidence the new law will promote reconciliation.

Appeal judges were told that the amnesty provisions could lead to complete immunities.

“It doesn’t require an apology, regret or recognition of loss,” Mr Bunting added.

“The evidence suggests it won’t bring about reconciliation.”

During submissions it was suggested that police officers allegedly involved in serious misconduct may be able to continue in their roles.

“The Commission… cannot punish by (imposing) disciplinary sanctions,” Mr Bunting claimed.

“It’s not just common sense that this is unlawful, it’s clearly established by the authorities.”

The appeal continues.