Police have failed in a bid to halt a High Court action brought by seven men acquitted of a terrorist attack in Belfast 21 years ago.

A judge refused to dismiss the men’s claim for damages, ruling that a delay in issuing proceedings had not prejudiced the defendant.

Danny Petticrew, one of the ‘Ballymurphy Seven’ brought the case.

He is seeking compensation for wrongful detention, false imprisonment and malicious prosecution.

It follows a bomb attack on an RUC and military patrol near the Springfield Road, Belfast, in August 1991.

Mr Petticrew from west Belfast, who was then aged 17, was taken to Castlereagh Holding Centre and, along with his co-accused, later charged with offences including attempted murder.

He was held in custody from April 1992 to September 1994. The case against him was discharged at trial on the basis that alleged admissions could not be used in evidence against him.

Mr Petticrew claims his arrest was deliberately delayed and, because of his youth and vulnerability, he was not able to withstand questioning during repeated police interviews.

He alleges that officers knew he was making false, unreliable and involuntary statements.

Lawyers for the Chief Constable applied to have the civil action thrown out due to the delay in bringing it. But on Friday, Mr Justice Gillen refused their appeal against a decision not to grant the application.

He accepted there had been “inexcusable and inordinate delay” in bringing the case.

However, the judge held that available transcripts from the original criminal trial, together with legal notes, meant defendant witnesses were in no more difficult a position now than if the claim had been brought in 1994.

“I am conscious that the allegations in this case amount to serious charges against persons and authorities within the State who are bound by laws publicly made and administered in the courts,” the judge said.

“They amount to an assault on the rule of law if they are true and an affront to public conscience.

“In those circumstances, courts should be particularly cautious before driving from the seat of judgment those who wish to litigate such matters.”

Dismissing the police application, he added: “The balance of justice lies in allowing such matters to proceed to trial if at all possible, so long of course as the defendant is not deprived of any realistic chance of defending the allegations due to the delay.”

Outside the court Mr Petticrew said he was satisfied that the actions brought by him and his six co-accused would go ahead.

“Something that happened 21 years ago is still having a massive effect on our lives today,” he said.