High Court judge to take over 56 legacy cases

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A new High Court judge is expected to take charge of Northern Ireland’s under-pressure Coroners’ Courts from next week.

Mr Justice Adrian Colton is likely to be appointed Presiding Coroner, replacing Lord Justice Weir who temporarily stepped in when the region’s most senior coroner retired last year.

Top of his “to-do” list will be wading through a major review of 56 stalled legacy cases which touch some 97 deaths.

They include some of the most controversial killings of the Troubles such as the shooting dead of 10 people in Ballymurphy by the Army in 1971; the murder of 10 Protestant workmen at Kingsmill in 1976; and the security forces’ alleged “shoot to kill” deaths in the 1980s.

The review was ordered by Northern Ireland’s most senior judge - Lord Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan who has described the current coronial system as “not fit for purpose”.

Only 13 Troubles-related inquests have been heard in the last decade and only three have taken place since 2012.

The failure of politicians to sign off on proposed mechanisms to deal with Northern Ireland’s toxic past during negotiations for the Fresh Start Agreement means initiatives to better deal with legacy cases, including more support for the Coroners’ Service, have yet to get off the ground.

On Thursday Stormont’s Justice Minister also warned that his cash-strapped department could not afford to deal with the backlog of historic inquests and called for the Treasury to foot the bill.

High Court and County Court judges were brought in to alleviate the pressure when John Leckey -- one of only three full time coroners operating in Northern Ireland - ended his 43 year career last summer.

And at one point the region was left without a coroner as the two others were absent on extended periods of sick leave.

The situation prompted some families to threaten legal action.

Mr Justice Colton was sworn into office last September.

He was called to the bar in 1983 and appointed Queen’s Counsel in 2006 having specialised in personal injury litigation, media law, defamation and criminal work.

He is also a former chairman of the Bar Council, from 2009-2011 and was co-chairman of the Forum for Barristers and Advocates within the International Bar Association.

The Lord Chief Justice’s office said Sir Declan Morgan would retain overall responsibility for Coroners’ Courts but Mr Justice Colton would provide oversight and leadership for the coroners as well as supporting the Chief Justice.