Northern Ireland

Legacy Act has caused ‘huge problems’ in justice system – Naomi Long

The Justice Minister said families seeking answers over deaths deserve to be ‘treated with more respect and dignity’.

Justice Minister Naomi Long approved the appointment of the new KCs .
Justice Minister Naomi Long. (Niall Carson/PA)

Controversial Government legislation to deal with the legacy of the Northern Ireland Troubles has caused “huge problems” with the justice system, Naomi Long has said.

Stormont’s Justice Minister said there continues to be legal uncertainty over the Act as well as a lack of clarity over how a new body set up to investigate Troubles deaths will operate.

Ms Long told MLAs that families seeking answers over deaths deserve to be “treated with more respect and dignity”.

The Act received royal assent in September despite widespread opposition from political parties, victims’ organisations in Northern Ireland and the Irish Government.

Troubles victims challenged the Legacy Act in the High Court
Troubles victims challenged the Legacy Act in the High Court (Brian Lawless/PA)

Last month, a High Court judge ruled that one of the central elements of the Act, the provision for conditional immunity from prosecution for Troubles offences, is not compliant with the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).

The Government has said it will appeal against the ruling.

The new Act will also halt future civil cases and legacy inquests.

The High Court judgment also ruled that the new Independent Commission for Reconciliation and Information Recovery (ICRIR) is able to carry out human rights compliant investigations.

Mrs Long was asked about the Legacy Act during ministerial questions at the Northern Ireland Assembly.

She said: “There continues to be considerable legal uncertainty around these new arrangements following the judgment handed down by the High Court on 28 February, which is the subject of an appeal by the UK Government.

“The judgment included declarations that a number of the Act’s provisions, including those relating to immunity from prosecution, are incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights and should be disapplied.

“It also concluded that the ICRIR is capable of carrying out investigations that are compliant with Articles 2 and 3 convention rights and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Chris Heaton-Harris) has said he remains committed to implementing that new commission.

“There however remains a lack of clarity around what the operating model for the new commission will be, how it will interface with justice organisations, what the costs associated with this work will be and how those costs will be funded.

“I have written to the Secretary of State seeking confirmation as a matter of urgency of the costs that may arise, especially for the 2024/25 financial year and the funding arrangements for these.

“It remains a matter of real regret to me that this legislation passed in Westminster.

“It has caused huge problems with the justice system.”

Members of Sean Brown’s family outside court last week
Members of Sean Brown’s family outside court last week (Liam McBurney/PA)

Asked about the cost implications of the Act, Mrs Long said: “The Legacy Act was not supported by Executive parties, it remains a UK-Government policy change so I believe the costs associated with the outworkings of that policy should fall to others than the Executive.”

The Justice Minister was asked by SDLP MLA Patsy McGlone if she supported a coroner’s call for a public inquiry into the murder of GAA official Sean Brown.

Mr Brown, 61, was abducted and killed by loyalist paramilitaries as he locked the gates at Bellaghy Wolfe Tones Club in Co Derry in May 1997.

A coroner last week called on the Government to order a public inquiry after ruling an inquest cannot proceed due to the withholding of sensitive files.

Mrs Long said: “I do believe there will be many families, either as a result of the Legacy Bill or as a result of other issues that have arisen in recent weeks, that will not be able to get the inquests that they wished and expected.

“I do believe those families deserve to be treated with more respect and dignity than is currently the case and to be able to access truth and justice in their cases.”