‘Chaotic’ is how the PSNI Chief Constable described the current state of the inquest system at a Policing Board meeting today.
There are almost 60 conflict related inquests currently open. Relatives for Justice are providing support to families in 21 of those inquests.
There can be no doubt that under resourcing of the coronial system is a critical matter regarding delays in holding inquests. There are 3 coroners with the senior coroner, John Leckey, due to retire. Two are off on sick leave.
A key part of compliance with the law, under Article 2 procedural obligations, is to investigate killings involving the State thoroughly, independently, effectively and promptly. Inquests are a central element of that overall process.
That many of the killings being examined enquire into the role of the British army, the SAS, and the RUC may help to shed some light as to why inquests have become ‘log-jammed’.
So too is the serious matter of collusion with RUC Special Branch and other intelligence agencies being scrutinized within inquests.
Up until quite recently inquests lacked the power to compel members of the RUC and British army that killed people. Inquests could not deliver verdicts or attribute blame, or examine the nature and circumstances of killings beyond basic facts already widely known. Families were also denied legal aid, relying on lawyers to represent them pro-bono. The main practice was to delay inquests into controversial and disputed killings. Oftentimes the average period before holding an inquest could be as long as a decade. Some of the most controversial are waiting over 20 years to be completed.
However, in May 2001 a landmark ruling by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHtR) found that the investigative processes in place to examine killings involving the State, including collusion, were in breach of the legal obligation on the State to properly investigate such killings.
This ruling meant that inquests needed to change; those within the States ‘security forces’ who killed people would need to appear and be questioned, the disclosure of information, intelligence, and documents relating to killings would be available, and the examination of killings beyond the basic facts would now take place.
The ruling meant that quite a number of inquests into controversial killings that were not yet held would now operate to the new rules. An unexpected problem now faced the British government, the NIO et al.
That’s why since 2001 there has been consistent legal battles within the local courts, including the Supreme Court, (the House of Lords), as to the interpretation of the European ruling. Other subsequent rulings from the ECHtR have assisted families in building upon previous rulings.
Families have painstakingly fought hard to ensure inquests function properly.
RFJ often say that it is a case of deny, deny, deny and then delay, delay, delay.
As the right to secure information was won the PSNI established a Legacy Support Unit (LSU) to address requests by coroners for intelligence materials, and documents concerning killings.
Comprising of a handful of officers this unit crucially includes former senior members of RUC Special Branch. Essentially the LSU determines what information and documents coroners and legal representatives for families receive. They source the material and evidence and then advise on whether or not it should be provided including what should be redacted, blanked out.
Some documents are so heavily redacted that they are unintelligible.
Added to this is the use of public interest immunity certificates, gagging orders, preventing evidence from being provided. (Read our latest report on the ongoing inquest this week into Daniel McColgan).
Under direct rule the NIO never addressed the failings in the coronial inquest system or the need for more coroners. This amounted to obstruction much in the same way they initially denied the Police Ombudsman resources to investigate Operation Ballast, (the Mount Vernon UVF and the RUC).
Ironically the PSNI now argue that they have no resources to recruit more members to the LSU, notwithstanding its fundamentally flawed composition. And hence the system conveniently gets bogged down in a resources argument.
However, elsewhere resources are readily available when it suits the PSNI.
We also have an exact situation repeated again by the British Ministry of Defence (MoD) concerning killings involving the British army and SAS; that is strangely enough once the PSNI have spent years completing their tasks, if at all.
Madness – or method in their madness?
So when the Chief Constable uses the phrases ‘chaotic’ and ‘log jammed’ he needs to face into the full facts and reality of what his role has been, and continues to be, in creating the chaos. Importantly the reasons why should be asked.