Judge to consider verdict in High Court legacy case

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Judgment was reserved on Thursday in a major High Court battle over funding for a series of legacy inquests in Northern Ireland.

The widow of a man shot dead along with eight IRA men is taking legal action against the British Government and the devolved regime at Stormont for allegedly withholding financial resources needed to hold hearings onto nearly 100 deaths.

Brigid Hughes is also challenging former First Minister Arlene Foster amid claims the Democratic Unionist Party leader unlawfully blocked Executive discussion of a plan aimed at clearing the backlog.

Following seven days of argument in Belfast the judge, Sir Paul Girvan, confirmed he was reserving his verdict.

Describing the issues involved as complicated, he pledged to give a decision as soon as possible.

Mrs Hughes is seeking to judicially review the administrations in London and Belfast for failing to release the funds necessary for inquests stretching back into Northern Ireland’s troubled history.

Her husband, Anthony, died after being unwittingly caught up in the SAS ambush of an IRA unit at Loughgall, Co Armagh in May 1987.

The legal challenge is being taken against the Secretary of State, the Stormont Executive and Mrs Foster personally due to her alleged responsibility for the logjam.

More than 50 legacy inquests remain outstanding, with potentially 72 more cases on the Attorney General’s desk for consideration.

Although the Stormont House Agreement includes a £150 million package to deal with all legacy issues, the Government has said financial resources will not be released until political consensus is reached on dealing with the past.

Northern Ireland’s Lord Chief Justice, Sir Declan Morgan, had advanced a plan for having all cases dealt with within five years.

In 2016 a paper was drawn up by the Department of Justice (DoJ) to bid for funds based on Sir Declan’s blueprint.

Lawyers for Mrs Hughes allege Mrs Foster stopped it from being discussed by her Executive colleagues for political reasons.

It was claimed that she would not allow a process which would “rewrite the past” because most of the inquests concerned state killings.

However, Attorney General John Larkin QC, representing Mrs Foster, insisted she behaved impeccably in preventing an “undercooked” paper going forward at that stage.

She had been focused on balancing the limited £150 million budget for dealing with all outstanding legacy issues, the court heard.

Counsel for the Northern Ireland Office also claimed that financial package could have been drained by the inquest funding bid alone.

Officials were said to be concerned the DoJ paper only covered 16 of the cases at a cost of nearly £17m, lacked a proper business model, reform proposals may have left nothing for other planned new bodies.

Sir Paul was also told the Executive Office was being wrongly challenged as it held no responsibility for setting the agenda at cabinet meetings.

He will now examine all submissions before delivering judgment at a later date. ends