In a landmark ruling, two men convicted in relation to IRA-related charges 30 years ago when they were teenagers have had their records cleared.
The Court of Appeal’s decision, based on Joseph Fitzpatrick and Terence Shiels being detained without access to a parent or lawyer, could open the floodgates to a series of applications stretching back to the 1970s.
Mr Fitzpatrick, from the Markets area of Belfast, was jailed for five years for membership of Fianna na hEireann -- the IRA’s youth wing -- and an arson attack on a motor garage in February 1977.
He was also convicted of involvement in a gun attack on a British Army patrol the previous December. In a separate case, Mr Shiels, from the Creggan in Derry received a suspended jail sentence based on a written statement in which he supposedly admitted belonging to the Fianna and possession of a handgun.
Both men were 16 when arrested and, under the law which operated at the time, all young persons in custody should be allowed to consult with a solicitor and have an appropriate adult present during interview.
Their cases were referred back to the Court of Appeal by the Criminal Cases Review Commission because of breaches to those regulations.
It was submitted that they were each held “incommunicado” and denied access to parents and lawyers.
With a breach of the Judges’ Rules established, and the only “evidence” being the admissions of guilt, the convictions against Mr Fitzpatrick and Mr Shiels were held to be “unsafe”.
Lawyers representing both men said the appeal court’s findings could open the floodgates for cases of juveniles convicted by the non-jury Diplock court system stretching back to the 1970s.
Significantly, no new evidence was presented during the hearing before three judges headed by Lord Chief Justice Brian Kerr.
Both men are eligible to seek compensation under a discretionary scheme.
The CCRC is understood to be preparing to refer a number of similar cases to the Court of Appeal.
Patricia Coyle of Harte Coyle Collins, which represents Mr Fitzpatrick, said the ruling was a milestone.
“Under the Diplock court system youth defendants thought it futile to try and protest innocence given the nature of the regime at that time,” she said.
“This ruling has paved the way for a substantial number of others who were convicted in similar circumstances.
“Our primary objective was having this conviction overturned and that was achieved today.”
Mr Shiels’s lawyer Ciaran Shiels, of Madden and Finucane, said yesterday’s decision would help some of those who had gone through the non-jury Diplock courts.
“This ruling will have far-reaching implications,” he said.
“We would hope it will provide some comfort to them in applications to overturn their convictions which would clearly be unsafe by today’s standards.”