Northern Ireland

Truth recovery body 'potentially more effective than Troubles-era inquests' High Court hears

A truth recovery body at the centre of the controversial new Legacy Act will be potentially more effective than Troubles-era inquests and civil actions, the High Court heard on Tuesday.

Counsel for the UK Government claimed the Independent Commission for Reconciliation and Information Recovery (ICRIR) has greater resources to examine deaths related to the conflict in Northern Ireland.  

Tony McGleenan KC also argued that victims statute-barred from obtaining information through litigation may achieve a better outcome through the wider scope available to the body.

Relatives of some of those killed during decades of violence are mounting a legal challenge to the Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Act.

The legislation offers a conditional amnesty to those accused of crimes if they provide a full and truthful account to the ICRIR headed by Sir Declan Morgan, a former Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland.

It will also end future civil litigation and inquests into conflict-related deaths not completed before the cut-off date of May 2024.

Lawyers for the victims taking the case are seeking a declaration that the Act is incompatible with Article 2 and 3 of European Convention on Human Rights.

But on day six of proceedings, the court was told that the Commission will have powers to look into incidents from 1998 stretching right back to 1966.

With a six-year limit on bringing civil actions under current rules, Mr McGleenan contended that many of the estimated 1,000 claims currently in the system may be statute-barred.

“What these provisions do is reset the limitation period to 1998, and take it back to 1966, 57 years, for a defined cohort of cases,” he said.

“If the pursuit of civil litigation is an attempt to understand what happened, then victims are better placed with the Commission than they are, some might think, (with the courts).”

Challenging those submissions, Mr Justice Colton pointed out that lawsuits could also be about obtaining redress.

Mr McGleenan replied: “I don’t shy away from the fact that the opportunity to seek compensation for a category of cases may be lost, but that’s a judgment that has been made.”

It was submitted that the truth recovery plans may also achieve more than a coronial process hampered where information can be redacted or subject to Public Interest Immunity.

“Yes, there is a cessation of inquests, but it transfers into a body that’s better resourced, that can do almost everything an inquest can do and, in some respects, more,” counsel said.

“You can’t hold up the inquest model as the gold standard.

“For whatever reason, it is not delivering even when we have thrown resources at it.

“It is a system that has been beset with difficulty.”

The court heard that operational powers have been fully devolved to the body led by Sir Declan.

“It has fashioned a process and designed it with Article 2 and 3 in mind, in a manner that replicates and in many cases improves upon what’s available already,” Mr McGleenan insisted.

“All of that is in the hands of the Chief Commissioner and the other commissioners, not the state.”

Urging Mr Justice Colton to reject the legal challenge, he added: “This is not an appropriate case for a declaration in respect of legislation or even where the court is being asked to simply dis-apply the provisions enacted by the sovereign parliament.”

The case continues.