Information relating to more than 3,000 Troubles inquests has been put online in a bid to make coroners’ records more accessible to bereaved relatives and the wider public.
The move by the Public Records Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI) to upload an index of inquest cases for the period 1969 to 1999 will also enable remote access to details on around 10,000 non-conflict related deaths.
High profile coroners’ probes like those on the IRA hungers strikers are included in the catalogue, as are notorious non-Troubles cases such as the deaths of Lesley Howell and Trevor Buchanan in Castlerock in 1991.
Their original joint inquest in 1992, which ruled that they had died in a suicide pact, was held long before the victims’ respective partners - dentist Colin Howell and Hazel Stewart - were eventually jailed for their murders.
David Huddleston, head of records management, cataloguing and access at PRONI, said the initiative was about trying to make it easier for the public to establish what information is held.
“The 13,000 records will cover a whole range, some of it will be about individuals who took their own lives, some of it will be tragic accidents, some of them will be conflict related,” he explained.
“So there will be a complete cross-section of different events that the coroner investigated.”
Actual inquest documents stored by PRONI, such as police reports, witness statements, post-mortem results and the findings of the presiding coroner, are not available online, as a Freedom of Information (FOI) request is still required to obtain copies.
But what is going onto the PRONI website for the first time is a list of what deaths in that 30-year period it has a case file on, and what documents are contained therein.
Officials hope this will make people more likely to take the next step and request access to the files through an FOI.
In those cases that have already been subject to a successful FOI in the past, around 200 of the 13,000, the public can obtain copies of those documents without the need for a further freedom request.
Before today people would have had to visit the Public Records Office in Belfast in person to enquire what inquest files it held.
Mr Huddleston added: “From today we’ve added more than 13,000 inquest records to the PRONI electronic catalogue for the period 1969 to 1999. That means people will be able to go on-line and search to see what records relate to a death that occurred in that period.
“If they locate a record that they want to find out about, say if it’s a relative that they want to find more information about what happened to them, they will then be able to apply for access to that information, be able to put a request in for that, and then there’s a process for us at the Public Record Office to go through to be able to make that information available to them.”
Once an FOI is received the PRONI forwards the case to either the Northern Ireland Office or Department of Justice for assessment on what information they are prepared to release.
Along with security considerations, one of the factors considered is whether some sections of the files, such a post-mortem reports, are too graphic for public consumption. Such details may be edited out as part of the state’s duty of care for the FOI applicant.
Mr Huddleston conceded that the FOI process could take some time.
“There is a consultation that is required so there would be a period of time before it would be able to be released to the applicant,” he said.
A catalogue of inquest files relating to deaths in the late 19th and early 20th centuries is already online. Mr Huddleston said the next step was to upload information on files from the 1950s and 1960s.
“It’s very much about increasing access,” he said.
“It’s about empowering people to allow them to go online and find out what information is held by the Public Record Office that maybe has had an impact in their past or still has an impact on them.
“It allows them to find out more about tragic or traumatic events from their past.”
Minister for Culture, Arts and Leisure Caral Ni Chuilin launched the index at PRONI’s building in Belfast’s Titanic Quarter.
“Last October I asked PRONI to create an index of the coroner’s inquest records which they held and to publish it online, this will be of practical assistance to families,” she said.
“The creation of this catalogue will allow the public to identify what is held on file and in particular it will be of tremendous benefit to families who wish to find out for themselves if the inquest record of their loved one is held by PRONI. For some this will be an important step forward.
“I realise the need for both transparency and sensitivity in relation to these files and all requests to access the files will be the subject of detailed consideration before determining what should be publicly released.
“This is a painstaking and time consuming process and will take a number of months to complete in each case.”