The British Government remains in breach of its legal obligation to carry out a human rights compliant investigation into the murder of Belfast solicitor Pat Finucane, a High Court judge ruled today.
Mr Justice Scoffield quashed a decision not to establish a public inquiry at this stage into the full scale of security force collusion with loyalist paramilitaries responsible for the killing in February 1989.
He also held that former Secretary of State Brandon Lewis unlawfully failed to reconsider that position following the conclusion of a police review process.
Despite stopping short of ordering a public inquiry, he directed that a fresh decision must now be taken on how to address the continued investigative deficiencies within a set timeframe.
The verdict came in a challenge by the murdered lawyer’s widow, Geraldine Finucane, to the failure to set up a public inquiry.
According to the judge she finds herself “in a sorry situation” nearly four years after the UK Supreme Court declared previous probes into the killing failed to meet the standards required by Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
Mr Justice Scoffield said: “I have no hesitation in concluding that the United Kingdom Government, represented in these proceedings by the Secretary of State, remains in breach of Article 2 on the basis of the ongoing delay in completing an investigation which satisfies the requirements of that provision.”
Pat Finucane’s murder was among the most notorious of the conflict in Northern Ireland.
UDA gunmen burst into his north Belfast home and shot him 14 times in front of his wife, who was injured by a ricocheting bullet, and three children.
His family have campaigned ever since for a public inquiry into levels of collusion with the killers.
Mr Finucane was described in court as the victim of a scheme where loyalist paramilitaries were infiltrated, resourced and manipulated to target those identified for assassination.
Counsel for his widow argued that only a public inquiry will uncover the full extent of a state-operated policy of “extrajudicial executions”.
In February 2019 the Supreme Court identified a continued breach of the requirement to hold an Article 2 compliant investigation.
Since then, Mrs Finucane has mounted further legal battles against the Government’s response to that ruling.
In November 2020 Mr Lewis announced there would not be a public inquiry at this stage because he wanted other police review processes to run their course.
He was ordered to pay £7,500 damages to Mrs Finucane for the excessive delay in reaching his position.
The current challenge centred on the legality of his decision to await the outcome of reviews by the PSNI’s Legacy Investigations Branch and the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland (PONI).
Mrs Finucane’s legal team argued that the LIB has now finished its work, while the Ombudsman’s process will not be completed until at least 2025.
It was contended that the decision taken by the former Secretary of State was irrational, unlawful and a breach of human rights.
Although former British Prime Minister David Cameron apologised for the “shocking” levels of collusion in the case, the court heard no members of the security forces has ever been held accountable for the killing or subsequent attempted cover-up.
A barrister representing the Secretary of State insisted there was no suggestion that the Supreme Court’s findings had not been accepted.
But he argued that Mr Lewis had been legally entitled to await the outcome of other police reviews which go towards investigative obligations the British Government is under.
But Mr Justice Scoffield refused to accept that those additional processes were “capable of discharging the State’s Article 2 obligations in terms of remedying the deficiencies identified in the Supreme Court judgment”.
He decided against compelling the Government to establish a public inquiry, explaining that it should be given an opportunity to consider its next step.
But the judge confirmed: “I will quash the Secretary of State’s decision of 30 November 2020 on the grounds of error of law and breach of Article 2, on the basis that it represented a breach of the reasonable expedition requirement to await the outcome of both the PSNI and PONI investigations.
“I further declare that it was unlawful for the respondent to fail to reconsider his decision at the point when he learned that the PSNI review process had concluded in May 2021.”
Ordering current Secretary of State Chris Heaton-Harris to reconsider the Government’s response to the Supreme Court’s findings, Mr Justice Scoffield said he understood Mrs Finucane’s concerns that it has simply postponed “a difficult choice in favour of buying further time”.
He added: “If the Secretary of State wishes to make a new case that an Article 2-compliant investigation is no longer feasible or would now be futile, he should do so.
“If… he does not make any such case but is nonetheless not prepared to establish a public inquiry or some other mechanism in order to remedy the Article 2 deficiencies identified by the Supreme Court, notwithstanding that that will result in continuing breach of Article 2, he should state that clearly and give his reasons.”