Northern Ireland’s police force is facing legal action from an independent watchdog which accuses it of refusing to provide information about more than 60 deaths.
Police ombudsman Michael Maguire has served notice on the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) over its alleged failure to provide his investigators with material and said his inquiries had been stalled.
The ombudsman’s office is part of an elaborate scrutiny mechanism overseeing policing following the peace process and is tasked with investigating complaints about police conduct surrounding historical and more recent inquiries. Its judicial review will seek to compel the PSNI to provide the ombudsman with information.
Dr Maguire said: “We cannot have a situation where any public body, and particularly the police, can decide whether or not it will cooperate with a criminal or misconduct investigation, particularly where legislation requires them to do so.”
The ombudsman handles complaints about the conduct of officers and has undertaken a series of hard-hitting investigations that found serious faults, although in many other cases exonerating detectives.
Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo) chief constable Sir Hugh Orde, who formerly headed the PSNI, has called for a similar regulatory system to be introduced across the UK.
Dr Maguire said despite repeated requests over past months, the PSNI has on more than 100 occasions either refused to provide information to his office or has said it must first explain and justify why the material is wanted.
He said: “The police have taken the view that they will decide whether or not to provide us with information and in many cases have now decided not to.”
He said the legal action was unusual and unfortunate but necessary, adding: “The many thousands of people who make complaints to us every year do so on the basis that we have access to all the police information we need to independently investigate their complaint.
“That principle is enshrined in law and accepted across the community. Investigation by negotiation is not acceptable.”
A PSNI spokesman said the organisation has a legal responsibility for the care and management of all information that it holds, a responsibility which must be taken extremely seriously.
“At the same time the PSNI also recognises the statutory responsibility to provide information to the Police Ombudsman, enabling exercise of his functions and legal responsibilities.
“Police are currently seeking to agree a solution with PONI around these complicated, and sometimes unfortunately competing, legal issues.
“We will continue to fulfil our legal obligations with the primary consideration being that of protecting life in accordance with Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights.”
Steps to protect life taken by the police in public fora like inquests have included the omission of details, with the assent of the Northern Ireland Secretary, which might identify some witnesses deemed to be at risk.
The police spokesman said: “Until we can get a resolution, PSNI believes that it has responded appropriately to each request, giving careful consideration on a case by case basis, to ensure that the respective legal requirements are met.
“PSNI will continue to work with PONI to seek to get an agreement over our respective obligations and ensure we both have shared understanding of the legal framework.”
In September the Ombudsman signed an agreement with chief constable Matt Baggott covering how requests for information are made and related procedures.
The ombudsman’s office said: “However, investigations into the circumstances surrounding more than 60 deaths - both those from the past and more recently - have now been stalled by a PSNI refusal to provide certain material.”
The ombudsman’s office includes a team of independent detectives drawn from outside Northern Ireland.
Relations have often been uneasy between members of the two organisations.
In October the association representing retired police officers said it will not encourage its members to engage with the ombudsman on certain historical investigations where breaches of the European Convention on Human Rights are alleged.
The body said an independent legal mechanism for assessing evidence should be introduced.
Then the ombudsman said the “extraordinary” actions of the former officers reinforced the need to be able to compel officers to assist its investigations and to produce all documentation in their possession.
Last year an inspection report said the PSNI was “co-operating” with the ombudsman over sensitive information.
Criminal Justice Inspection Northern Ireland (CJI) examined the relationship between the two organisations.
There were concerns the PSNI was being unhelpful in supporting the ombudsman’s investigations into historical cases.
On Tuesday an inquest preliminary hearing in Belfast was told it could be months before an ombudsman investigation into the 2005 death of a Belfast man shot during a loyalist feud was ready.
A lawyer for Craig McCausland’s family, Padraig O’ Muirigh, said the judicial review against the PSNI would be welcomed by many victims’ relatives.
“It is an unprecedented move by the police ombudsman to take these measures.”
The Policing Board, made up of political and independent members, oversees the force and makes major appointments.
A spokeswoman said: “Police cooperation and the provision of information to the institutions with legislative responsibility for delivering independent oversight and accountability of the PSNI is critical.
“The application for leave for judicial review by the Police Ombudsman is very significant and a matter of great concern. Board members will discuss this with the chief constable at its meeting this week.”