Northern Ireland news

Troubles legacy inquests delayed to October due to Covid-19

Dozens of fresh inquests into deaths during the Troubles are being planned in a five-year schedule
Brendan Hughes

The first set of Troubles legacy inquests is being delayed until October due to the coronavirus pandemic.

'Hybrid' hearings, using a mix of physical hearings and technology for live links, are also being considered to facilitate the inquests going ahead.

Dozens of fresh inquests into deaths during the Troubles are being planned in a five-year schedule, but all non-urgent court business including legacy inquests was adjourned during lockdown.

The Presiding Coroner yesterday said the full impact of the pandemic on legacy inquests "is not yet known".

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Mrs Justice Keegan said: "Having considered the situation, I am of the view that the start date for Year 1 inquests should be pushed back to a later date in October 2020.

"There are no guarantees but this the best estimate I can give."

She said preparatory work will continue in the interim period.

The judge said the court estate is being modified to accommodate physical hearings within public health guidelines, but this could constrain capacity.

"We will consider the use of technology to facilitate inquest hearings but we must be mindful of the need to ensure fairness for all involved," she said.

Mrs Justice Keegan

"It may be that 'hybrid' hearings with a mix of physical hearings and live link will be appropriate.

"These issues will be addressed in individual cases by individual coroners with the input of all interested persons."

Mrs Justice Keegan had previously delayed announcing which cases may be heard during the second year of the £55 million plan to deal with 52 legacy inquests, involving 93 deaths between the 1970s and 2000.

The judge yesterday said the impact of Covid-19 on the first year of inquests was still too unclear to make an announcement on the second tranche.

Jon Boutcher. Picture by Liam McBurney, Press Association

Meanwhile, a former police chief leading several Troubles-related investigations has voiced concern about aspects of the British government's new plan to deal with legacy issues.

Most investigations would be closed and prevented in law from being re-opened under the proposals.

Jon Boutcher, the head of Operation Kenova, said the idea "should be approached with extreme caution", and questioned the legal implications.

The former Bedfordshire chief constable is heading investigations into several killings, including those linked to Stakeknife, a British Army agent within the IRA.

Mr Boutcher responded to the proposals in a submission to Westminster's Northern Ireland committee.

"The proposal to close down investigations of murder in legacy cases after a quick review process where those cases could not be re-opened would, I believe, be a legal novelty in the United Kingdom for serious crimes such as murder," he said.

"This proposal should be approached with extreme caution.

"An investigation/review which starts and finishes only with the information available at the outset and does not allow for the development of lines of enquiry would not be Article 2 ECHR (European Convention on Human Rights) compliant."

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