Coroners ‘cannot be allocated’ to outstanding Northern Ireland legacy inquests

Judge says he recognises ‘disappointment, upset and anger’ caused to people hoping to find out how loved ones died

Coroners cannot be allocated to outstanding legacy inquests into Troubles deaths in Northern Ireland, a court has heard.

Presiding coroner Mr Justice Michael Humphreys said he understood the “disappointment, upset and anger” this will cause to relatives who have an expectation that inquests will be carried out into how their loved ones died.

A number of inquests are proceeding in Northern Ireland against the backdrop of the UK government’s new Legacy Act, which states that any legacy inquests that have not reached the point of verdict by May 1st next will be discontinued.

Mr Justice Humphreys said pressure to complete already running inquests before the cut-off point means there are “simply no resources available” to allocate resources to remaining cases.


He said that even if resources could be allocated to the cases, it would be difficult for them to be completed before May 1st.

Giving an update at the Royal Courts of Justice in Belfast on Friday, the presiding coroner said the Legacy Inquest Unit (LIU) had been established in February 2019 with an aim of hearing outstanding legacy inquests in Northern Ireland within a five year time frame. He said the work initially comprised 53 inquests relating to 94 Troubles deaths.

Mr Justice Humphreys said that a number of inquests had concluded and delivered findings, including the inquest into the Ballymurphy massacre, which was already under way before the unit was established.

However, he said that several more, including the inquests into the murder of GAA official Seán Brown and the Kingsmill massacre, still had to be completed.

“Six inquests have concluded and findings delivered. A further 16 are part heard and four others are under active case management by assigned coroners,” he said. “Thirteen inquests are listed for hearing between now and April 2024. Eighteen coroners of different judicial tiers are currently committed to legacy inquests.”

He said cases that would be impacted by the Legacy Act were deaths that occurred between January 1st, 1966 and April 10th, 1988.

Mr Justice Humphreys said there were a further 10 legacy cases that have not been assigned to a coroner. He said that four of these cases occurred within the time frame stipulated in the Act.

The presiding coroner said the attorney general had also ordered an additional nine inquests into 18 Troubles deaths that were not part of the original five-year plan for the unit. He said all but one of these deaths occurred in the time frame stipulated in the government Act. These include the murder of Ian Sproule in Co Tyrone in 1991.

Mr Justice Humphreys said the Belfast High Court would hear a legal challenge to the Act next week.

“I have taken this opportunity to set out the position in relation to all ongoing and outstanding legacy inquests in order that all practitioners, interested persons and the public are aware of the complete picture as far as the five-year plan is concerned,” he said.

“For the most part PIPs [properly interested persons] accept that there is no real prospect of an unallocated inquest concluding before May 1st, 2024.

“The PSNI and the ministry of defence make the point that imposing further disclosure obligations upon them would have an adverse effect upon the progress of the inquests which are part heard.”

The presiding coroner said he was conscious of the obligations set out in law to hold inquests as soon as is practicable, but said the ability to comply with such obligation is tempered by the finite nature of resources.

“I recognise the disappointment, upset and anger that this will cause to relatives whose loved ones died and who have an expectation that an inquest will be held to find out how the death occurred,” he said, adding that he would not take a final view on the future of outstanding legacy inquests until after the High Court delivered its ruling on the Legacy Act. – PA