The families of a number of civilians killed by the British Crown forces won the first round this week in a legal battle over a decision to suspend their inquests.
A High Court judge granted them leave to seek a judicial review of the adjournments by the North’s senior coroner, who said questions of ‘national security’ had been raised by the original decision to order the inquests.
Justice Treacy said they had “comfortably surmounted” the test of establishing an arguable case.
A total of twenty-one inquests ordered by Six-County attorney general John Larkin QC have been put on hold following the decision by coroner John Leckey.
The coroner’s decision, announced last Thursday, provoked outrage among relatives of those whose deaths were to be examined. Lawyers for a number of the families launched legal challenges, claiming the move was unlawful and procedurally unfair.
The deaths which were due to be scrutinised include that of 11-year-old Francis Rowntree, who was hit by a rubber bullet fired by a soldier in west Belfast in 1972.
Another case involves Gerard Slane, a 27-year-old father-of-three shot dead by a loyalist death squad at his home in the city in 1988.
His killing has been linked to collusion between the loyalist paramilitary UDA and the British Crown forces.
Karen Quinlivan QC, representing some of the families, argued that the decision to order at least some of the inquests had been legally passed to Larkin by the British government’s Advocate-General.
She contended that the coroner did not have the power to suspend the inquests two years after they were ordered, and that Mr Leckey should have brought High Court challenges rather than invoke a blanket suspension.
At one point in the hearing the judge referred to the rubber-bullet killing of Francis Rowntree.
“It’s difficult to see what the national security issues are likely to be in that case,” he said.
A further hearing will now take place in February.
Outside the court Mark Thompson of campaign group Relatives for Justice also hit out at the denial of legal aid funding for Gerard Slane’s widow Teresa.
“Her case goes to the heart of ‘national security’,” he said. “There is a real and legitimate feeling that this is all part of a political decision.”