In an emphatic ruling, a High Court judge has issued a “mandatory order” to civil servants in Belfast and London to provide long-denied funds for legacy inquests in the North of Ireland.
With no Ministers currently in place, Justice Paul Girvan said his order would provide the Six County Department of Justice with certainty about its legal duties.
He also ruled that DUP leader and former First Minister Arlene Foster is liable for costs in a case where she was found to have unlawfully blocked nearly 100 conflict-related inquests.
Setting out his reasons for requiring action, the judge said previous failures to act meant that more coercive steps were needed to address continued breaches of human rights law.
Justice Girvan said: “In the absence of ministers where a mandatory order is in place, civil servants running the departments will know what their precise legal duty is and will not be restrained or influenced by the belief that they are in some way bound by the actual or potential views of past ministers and/or future ministers.”
On that basis he directed the Executive Office, the Department for Justice and the British Direct Ruler Karen Bradley to “reconsider their duties” to immediately provide resources to the Coroners Service for legacy inquests.
His ruling came in a case brought by the widow of an Irish nationalist civilian shot dead by the British Army’s SAS.
Brigid Hughes, whose husband Anthony died after being caught up in a murderous SAS ambush of an IRA unit at Loughgall, County Armagh in May 1987, challenged the failure to fund outstanding legacy inquests.
Proceedings were issued by Mrs Hughes against the British government, the Stormont Executive and Mrs Foster personally due to her responsibility for the denial of an inquest.
Girvan confirmed that any future Executive will also be bound by his order and held the respondents liable for costs in the case, including Mrs Foster, who was required to pay from her own personal funds.
Speaking from Washington DC where he is briefing US politicians, Mark Thompson of Relatives for Justice said:
“We welcome this judgment. It sends a very clear and important signal to anyone in authority that seeks to deny human rights to citizens that in doing so there will be judicial outcomes that not only upholds those rights denied but that also personal sanctions and financial liabilities will be incurred as a direct consequence of such illegal behaviour in public office.
“This should act as a deterrent.
“We again call on Mrs Foster to apologise to all those families that her illegal decision affected.”
Sinn Fein Vice President Michelle O’Neill said the judgement was a “damning indictment” of the refusal to release legacy funding for inquests, some of which have been delayed about half a century.
She called for the monies to be released immediately.
“This is a step forward for the families who should not have had to seek legal redress in the first place,” she said.
“The British government and Arlene Foster should have done the right thing a long time ago. Instead, they actively blocked this process. They deliberately prevented grieving families from access to the truth of how their loved ones died.
“But today’s judgment sends a very clear message to anyone in public office that unlawful behaviour and the denial of rights to citizens will not be sanctioned by the courts.
“I hope this acts as a deterrent to those who would still seek to do so.”