Northern Ireland

Law Society calls off legacy conference amid picket threat

Lord Jonathan Caine
Lord Jonathan Caine

A controversial legacy conference which was due to be addressed by former Lord Chief Justice Declan Morgan and the architect of a new law that limits access to legal redress has been called off.

The 'Legacy: Reaching Beyond the Past' conference, organised by the Law Society, was due to take place at the Hilton Hotel in Belfast on Friday.

The organisers had faced calls to cancel the event after concerned relatives, victims and campaign groups said they intended to hold a picket outside the venue.

Several prominent legal figures who were lined up to take part in the event also withdrew in recent days.

It is understood these include respected academic Phil Scraton and well-known legacy lawyer Kevin Winters.

Alyson Kilpatrick, chief commissioner at the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (NIHRC), also pulled out of the event.

Read More:Council of Europe 'strongly urges' British government to reconsider immunity provisions in Legacy Act

Church leaders: Legacy bill 'will not achieve any of its purposes'

Open mainly to members of the legal profession,  the conference was due to take place days after the British government's controversial Legacy Bill, dubbed the Bill of Shame by some, passed into law.

The Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Act received royal assent earlier this week.

The new laws will provide immunity in some cases along with ending all inquests and civil cases.

Multiple legal challenges against the legislation have been lodged with the High Court in Belfast.

Sir Declan Morgan
Sir Declan Morgan

Those due to address the conference included former Lord Chief Justice Declan Morgan, who was recently appointed chair of the Independent Commission for Reconciliation and Information Recovery (ICRIR).

Established by the British government, the ICRIR will now oversee the handling of all conflict-related cases going forward.

Relatives of some of those killed during the Troubles say they will not co-operate with the new body.

Lord Jonathan Caine
Lord Jonathan Caine

Although not officially listed as a speaker, it is understood that Northern Ireland Office Lord Caine, had been lined up to address the event.

Mr Caine was a central figure in having the Legacy Bill forced into law.

 Mark Thompson
Mark Thompson

A spokesman for the NIHRC said Ms Kilpatrick initially agreed to attend but on September 6 informed the Law Society "she was no longer willing to speak at the conference".

"As arrangements for the conference progressed, the chief commissioner considered it inappropriate to participate," a spokesman said.

"That was for several reasons, including the failure to include victims and survivors or their families.

"The commission has grave concerns about the act, which are well-documented, and is reflecting on next steps."

Mark Thompson of Relatives for Justice was critical of the new law.

"There should be no quarter given to the British government and those appointed to roll out this appalling amnesty legislation," he said.

"No amount of spin or talking will change the fact that this new law will deny truth, justice and accountability."

He said relatives of the dead will continue to campaign for justice.

"The only place for discussing this law is in the courts, especially the European court," he said.

"Families will never give up on their legal rights to justice."

Law Society President, Brian Archer, said the Law Society "is committed to upholding the Rule of Law and has been at the forefront of challenging this legislation during its passage through parliament". 

He defended the decision to organise the contentious event.

"Solicitors play a vital role supporting victims and survivors of the Troubles seeking answers and accountability and I believe it is appropriate for the Law Society to hold events such as this to inform and educate our members," he said.

"Freedom of expression and debate is an intrinsic and important aspect of the rule of law."

He outlined the society's reasons for calling the event off.

"However, we recognise the strength of feeling in opposition to this Act," he said.

"With a significant number of legal challenges now before the courts, the implementation of the new legacy structures remains uncertain, and it is right to postpone the event until such time as the legality of the new legacy arrangements has been tested in the courts.”

A spokesman for the ICRIR said: "It’s not for ICRIR to comment on the organisers’  decision to postpone.

"Sir Declan Morgan and Peter Sheridan are happy to speak to all to hear views and explain their proposed approach to how they want to make the commission work for all."