An investigation into one of the most gruesome killings in Northern Ireland’s bloody history is to be fast-tracked, the High Court heard on Friday.
A judge was told the Police Ombudsman will speed up the probe into the sectarian torture and murder of Catholic man Patrick Benstead more than 40 years ago.
The news was revealed in an ongoing legal challenge over funding cuts to the independent watchdog which it had been feared could delay inquiries by decades.
Mr Benstead’s brother, Colm, is seeking to judicially review Justice Minister David Ford over the decision to reduce resources.
The 32-year-old victim, from the Short Strand area of east Belfast, was abducted and taken to a loyalist drinking den where he was beaten and then shot in December 1972.
His murder was among 22 carried out by a notorious UDA gang – eight of which became known as the ‘Romper Room’ killings.
Amid suspicions that the loyalists were in collusion with a military unit and the RUC, the Benstead family lodged a complaint with the Police Ombudsman back in 2006.
Last autumn the current Ombudsman, Dr Michael Maguire, revealed his budget had been reduced by around £750,000.
Colm Benstead’s lawyers claimed it would deny the right to a prompt investigation to establish whether his brother’s killing was preventable, linked to other murders or involved any collusion.
At a previous hearing it was claimed there could be a 20-year delay in fully examining the complaint.
The Justice Minister’s legal representatives insist the Stormont House political deal agreed last December will deal with any backlog and reverse funding cuts.
It is envisaged that a new historical investigations unit (HIU) taking over responsibility for examining legacy cases will be operating by next summer.
A budget of £150 million is also to be made available over a five-year period.
But in court on Friday Mr Benstead’s lawyer disclosed the potentially significant development on the timeframe for his case.
Steven McQuitty said: “I have just been told by counsel for the Police Ombudsman that Mr Benstead’s claim is going to be in some way fast-tracked within the Ombudsman’s office.”
Confirming the situation, David Scoffield QC, representing the watchdog, apologised to the family for being informed during court proceedings.
“That’s not the way the Ombudsman prefers to provide news about the conduct of the case,” he said.
“What my friend called fast-tracking has only come to light in the last number of days as the Benstead (case) has been linked with a number of other cases which had a higher priority.”
Mr Scoffield was unable to go into more detail, but said more information will be given to the family within the next week or so.
On that basis Mr Justice Treacy agreed to adjourn the challenge.
Outside court Mr Benstead said he accepted the Ombudsman’s apology about how he learned of the new prioritisation.
But he insisted that funding uncertainties could still see his brother’s case put back.
“We are at the whim of politicians, whether or not they find some agreement over these issues in the future,” he said.
“If we go by their track record then I have absolutely no faith in their ability to deliver on these issues.”
Mr Benstead’s solicitor, Paul Pierce of KRW Law, added: “It’s regrettable that my client had to bring these proceedings only to be informed at the door of the court that this case is going to be processed now for investigation.
“This now appears to be a continued pattern of behaviour on the part of the state, where victims and their families have been forced to bring cases to court, only to be informed that what they had asked for will be given to them.
“It’s indicative of an approach that engenders delay.”