Northern Ireland’s chief constable has urged a shake-up of how the Coroner’s Court system deals with Troubles inquests.
George Hamilton’s call for changes in how the cases are progressed comes in the wake of repeated criticism of the Police Service of Northern Ireland’s own handling of inquests from the region’s most senior coroner.
Coroner John Leckey has been left frustrated by the length of time the PSNI has taken to security vet and disclose files to the court, with it often taking years for documents to be made available.
There are currently around 60 on-going inquests relating to controversial deaths during the conflict, some dating back more than 40 years.
Mr Hamilton insisted the disclosure logjam was not the sole responsibility of the PSNI and stressed that the process of carefully vetting hundreds of thousands of papers was an extremely time consuming and labour intensive job.
He claimed the failure by the Coroner’s Court to prioritise cases hampered the PSNI’s ability to maximise its limited resources.
“Prioritisation - that is a big thing that could be done now, even within the current system,” he said.
“And then I think there needs to be a more carefully managed process around the actual inquests.”
Mr Hamilton said the system was “not effective and not efficient”.
“I think there needs to be some sort of revamp of the coronial system,” he said.
Problems in the inquest system were acknowledged in the Stormont House Agreement struck in December between Northern Ireland’s leaders and the British and Irish governments. While the accord pledged that the Executive will take “appropriate steps” to improve the way the legacy inquests function it is not yet clear what those steps will be.
Mr Leckey has called on the Government to invest more resources into the system. Highlighting that human rights legislation requires the state to carry out timely investigations, he has warned that the UK runs the risk of repeatedly falling foul of the law if the delays are not addressed.
Mr Hamilton stressed that the PSNI had a more significant human rights obligation to keep people safe in the present day.
“The jurisprudence tells us real and immediate risk has to be prioritised so the here today risk needs to be prioritised over the historical piece,” he said.
The chief constable added: “We take our responsibilities to act as agents of the coroner very seriously, we do our best.
“And in a number of cases we actually get praise in court for it but of course that doesn’t get covered in the media.
“There have been other cases where clearly the coroner has been frustrated and families have been frustrated at the speed of disclosure.
“But it is massive volumes, it’s a highly complex process of redacting information where it is sensitive and it is not appropriate to put it into the public domain.”