The Police Ombudsman has unlawfully failed to investigate alleged RUC wrongdoing in the killing of three IRA men within a reasonable time, a High Court judge declared on Friday.
Mr Justice Humphreys confirmed the outcome in a challenge mounted by the widow of one of the volunteers shot dead by the SAS 35 years ago.
Brothers Gerard and Martin Harte were gunned down at Drumnakilly, Co Tyrone in August 1988.
They were ambushed ten days after the IRA bombed a bus carrying British troops at Ballygawley, an attack which claimed the lives of eight soldiers.
Relatives of the three republicans believed they were victims of a suspected shoot-to-kill policy operated by the security forces.
State agents allegedly lured them into a premeditated trap, according to their case.
It has also been claimed that RUC officers were involved in cordoning off the area prior to the shooting and did not carry out an effective probe in the immediate aftermath.
Gerard Harte’s widow, Roisin, lodged a complaint with the Police Ombudsman’s Office following a television documentary about the case broadcast in 2015.
In 2018 the watchdog confirmed that an investigation into her grievance would be carried out.
But amid budgeting issues the inquiry was never completed.
Mrs Harte issued judicial review proceedings against the Ombudsman over that delay, and against the Department of Justice for an alleged failure to provide the necessary funding.
With the Government’s controversial Legacy Act set to shut down work on Troubles-era probes, her case is not expected to be dealt with by the cut-off date of May 2024.
In court on Friday it was announced that the Ombudsman had conceded Mrs Harte’s legal challenge.
Mr Justice Humphreys stated: “The court will make a declaration that the first respondent (the Police Ombudsman) has acted unlawfully by failing to investigate the applicant’s complaint within a reasonable time.”
He also ordered the body to pay Mrs Harte’s legal costs.
Proceedings against the Department of Justice were formally dismissed.
Outside court, Mrs Harte’s solicitor stressed she had expected her complaint would be fully examined and the subject of a published report.
Gavin Booth of Phoenix Law said:
“It is clear now that the Ombudsman has acted unlawfully, but unfortunately there will be no report due to the Legacy Act.”
Citing the separate High Court challenge to that legislation, he added: “Mrs Harte, like many other families, are in a state of uncertainty and hope that judgment will asallow them to obtain investigations into their cases.”