The families of six men killed by either police, soldiers or loyalist paramilitaries have been awarded £7,500 each in damages for unlawful delays in holding inquests, in a landmark ruling in the High Court.
Mr Justice Stephens held that compensation was necessary for the “frustration, distress and anxiety” suffered by the families.
His verdict could now open the floodgates for scores of other claims involving so-called legacy cases.
Relatives issued proceedings against the coroner and either the PSNI, Police Ombudsman’s Office or Ministry of Defence.
The cases included:
- Michael Ryan, known as Pete, one of three IRA men ambushed and shot dead by the SAS in Coagh, Co Tyrone, in June 1991.
- Patrick Jordan, the IRA man shot and killed by an RUC officer in Belfast in November 1992.
- Catholic man Fergal McCusker, who was kidnapped and shot dead in Maghera, Co Londonderry, by loyalist paramilitaries in January 1998. His family have raised concerns about collusion between agents of the state and paramilitaries in the death.
- Neil McConville, the first person to be shot and killed by the PSNI following a car chase near Lisburn, Co Antrim in April 2003.
- James McMenamin, who died after he was knocked down by a PSNI Land Rover on Belfast’s Springfield Road in June 2005.
- Steven Colwell, who was shot dead by police after he failed to stop in a stolen car at a checkpoint in Ballynahinch, Co Down, in April 2006.
Lawyers for all six families claimed their human rights have been breached by the failure to examine the circumstances surrounding each death as soon as possible.
In each of the cases it was argued that the state and the coroner breached their obligations to ensure prompt human rights-compliant investigations into the deaths.
Counsel for the Department of Justice featuring in the case as an umbrella state body, has already indicated that a proposal has been made to deal with the issues.
It conceded that the delays were “unlawful”.
Mr Justice Stephens said the investigation into the death of a close relative impacts on the next of kin at a fundamental level of human dignity.
He said: “It is obvious that if unlawful delays occur in an investigation into the death of a close relative that this will cause feelings of frustration, distress and anxiety to the next of kin.
“It would be remarkable if any applicant was emotionally indifferent as to whether there was a dilatory investigation into the death of their close relative and such emotional indifference would be entirely inconsistent with an applicant who seeks to obtain relief by way of judicial review proceedings.
“As a matter of domestic law it would be lamentable if a premium was placed on protestations of misery.
“At this level of respect for human existence and for the human dignity of the next of kin of those who have died there should be no call for a parade of personal unhappiness.”
He held that all of the applicants, regardless as to their age, must have suffered by the unlawful delays that have occurred.
Each of them is entitled to £7,500 in damages, the judge ruled.
Five of the pay-outs were made against the Department of Justice, while the verdict in the Jordan case was against the PSNI.
In Mr Jordan’s case it is the second time the family have been awarded damages.
In 2001, £10,000 was awarded for the delay in proceedings. The judge found that their case was “exceptional” and that a further award of compensation be made.
The Jordan’s lawyer, Fearghal Shiels of Madden and Finucane Solicitors, said: “This judgment is a damning indictment of the PSNI and its attitude towards bereaved families.
“Their award is commensurate with awards made by the Strasbourg Courts to families bereaved by the state over the last number of years and the Jordan family hope that it will provoke a change in mindset and lead to the state beginning to address the outstanding legacy issues with more haste.”
Solicitor Padraig O Muirigh, who represented the other five families, said the significant delays in holding investigations that meet human rights requirements “had been well documented”.
He added: “It’s also clear now that this delay is systemic and applies to post-conflict Article 2-compliant inquests as well.”
Responding to the ruling, Justice Minister David Ford said there was a need to find a way to deliver legacy inquests “in an efficient and cost-effective manner”.
A spokeswoman for the NI Policing Board, said its members would raise the issue with Chief Constable Matt Baggott at the next meeting.
“The Board has raised a series of questions and held a number of discussions with the PSNI on issues relating to the disclosure process and resourcing of the Legacy Support Unit of the PSNI,” she said.
“Whilst it is acknowledged that in some cases the disclosure process can be lengthy and complex, board members have expressed serious concern about the continued delays in the provision of material and the impact for the families involved.
“Board members have also highlighted the impact such delays have on confidence in the PSNI and the criminal justice system.”