High Court rules Legacy Act immunity provision breaches human rights

High Court rules Legacy Act immunity provision breaches human rights

THE HIGH COURT in Belfast has ruled that part of the British Government's Legacy Act is in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).

In his ruling, Mr Justice Colton said the Act's provision of immunity was incompatible with articles 2 and 3 of the ECHR.

Secretary of State Chris Heaton-Harris said in the Commons that the Government would consider the ruling, however, Sinn Féin MP Órfhlaith Begley called for the Act to be repealed.

The Act, which received Royal Assent last September, seeks to do away with investigations and inquests into Troubles-era cases.

Instead, those who cooperate with the new Independent Commission for Reconciliation & Information Recovery (ICRIR) can be granted immunity from prosecution.

However, critics said this would deny justice to victims and their families.

Four people brought a legal challenge against the Act, saying that individuals identified as being responsible for Troubles-era offences could escape police investigation and seek immunity.

'No evidence'

In his ruling, Mr Justice Colton said he was satisfied the immunity provisions breached the applicants' human rights.

"If an applicant for immunity meets the criteria the ICRIR must grant immunity. The victims have no role or say in these decisions," he said.

"Victims may be confronted with a situation where an applicant for immunity does so at the last minute, in circumstances where a recommendation for prosecution is imminent or inevitable.

Supporters of Troubles victims hold placards opposing the government’s Legacy Act (Image: Charles McQuillan/Getty Images)

"I accept that the provision of information as to the circumstances in which victims of the Troubles died or were seriously injured is clearly important and valuable.

"It is arguable that the provision of such information could contribute to reconciliation.

"However, there is no evidence that the granting of immunity under the 2023 Act will in any way contribute to reconciliation in Northern Ireland, indeed, the evidence is to the contrary."

However, Mr Justice Colton did conclude that the ICRIR was capable of carrying out human rights compliant investigations into Troubles-related offences.

'Back to the drawing board'

Speaking outside court, a solicitor representing the families said that he believed the ruling spelled the beginning of the end for the Act, given that it was underpinned by immunity provision.

"This can be distilled down to a very simple point — the Secretary of State's proposals were built on a foundation of immunity," said Darragh Mackin of Phoenix Law.

"The court has struck those proposals out, those foundations have gone, it is time to go back to the drawing board."

Mr Mackin added that he was willing to take the fight to the Supreme Court should the Secretary of State appeal today's ruling.

His words were echoed by West Tyrone MP Miss Begley, who branded the act 'cruel'.

"I welcome today's High Court ruling that the Legacy Act is in breach of the European Convention of Human Rights," she posted on Twitter.

"The British government should repeal its cruel Legacy Act and implement the Stormont House Legacy mechanisms in a human rights compliant manner."

North Down MP Stephen Farry of the Alliance party also called on the Government to suspend the implementation of the Act following today's ruling, adding that a May 1 deadline to conclude Troubles-era inquests should be lifted.

"This Act and the continuing uncertainty around its implementation are causing untold and unjustifiable stress and anxiety for victims and survivors of Troubles incidents," he said.

"Today's ruling should therefore be a prelude to repeal of the Legacy Act and a replacement which has the confidence of local parties and especially victims."