A backlog of inquests from Northern Ireland’s troubled past will take decades to complete without government funding, the Lord Chief Justice has warned.
Expressing dismay at the lack of political progress on dealing with legacy cases, Sir Declan Morgan predicted coroners will only be able to finish two more during this financial year.
In an address to mark the opening of the new legal year, the head of Northern Ireland’s judiciary called on the Stormont Executive and UK Government to take urgent steps towards implementing his model for dealing with historic inquests.
He said: “It is impossible to see how the issue of legacy can be moved forward politically without progress having been made on the new legislation and in the absence of a clear assessment of the costs involved in implementing all of the elements of a legacy package.
“The overall picture is, therefore, hugely disappointing.”
Justice Minister Claire Sugden was among guests at the event in the Royal Courts of Justice in Belfast.
Inquests into some of the most controversial killings of the Troubles have been hit by a series of delays.
Sir Declan, who was appointed President of the Coroners’ Court last November, had proposed a legacy inquest unit in a bid to clear the backlog of cases within five years.
He made clear that his blueprint required political agreement to an injection of additional resources and the full co-operation of other organisations before he would be in a position to deliver legally-compliant inquests.
The Lord Chief Justice had hoped to advance with his proposed model for legacy inquests pending a ratification of the proposed new institutions for dealing with the past.
But he explained: “Disappointingly, however, it now appears that a political resolution will be required on an overall legacy package before the resources required for legacy inquests will be released.”
A draft Bill to create the new institutions has not yet been published, Sir Declan noted.
Nor have costings for the full package of measures for dealing with the past been provided by the Department of Justice.
He stressed coroners have attempted to make as much progress as is possible within the limited resources currently available to them.
However, the Lord Chief Justice anticipated they would only have the capacity to complete two further inquests during the remainder of this financial year.
He added that if the coroners were to continue in this vein, it would be “decades” before all of the outstanding cases would be completed.
According to Sir Declan this would not comply with the legal requirement to deal with the backlog of cases within a reasonable timeframe.
“I do not want us to remain in that position since that would be yet another devastating blow to the families,” he said.
“The judiciary will be facing up to its responsibilities but this is not a matter on which the judiciary alone can deliver.
“I therefore call again on the local Executive and legislature, and on the UK Government, to play their part as a matter of urgency.
“We cannot move on while we remain under the shadow of the past. Nor should we. But time is not on our side.”