Tuesday 12 December 2017

Reports on unsolved murders to be withheld from families

PSNI chief constable Matt Baggott
PSNI chief constable Matt Baggott

Michael McHugh

Reports on unsolved murders in Northern Ireland are to be withheld from victims' families until the future of the Historical Enquiries Team (HET) is sorted out, it emerged.

A policing watchdog has criticised the group of detectives for acting unlawfully and an embargo has been placed on releasing future reviews, an inquest heard. PSNI chief constable Matt Baggott is in discussions with the Policing Board to decide the way forward.

The family of Sean Brown, a south Derry GAA figure murdered by loyalists as he locked the club gates in 1997, was told they would not be receiving the report until a new investigator had "quality checked" previous HET work.

Senior coroner John Leckey said: "I have always felt that this was one of the most horrific murders in the course of the Troubles and I would be keen to give some priority to it."

The HET investigated cases where the state was involved with "less rigour" than others, the Inspectorate of Constabulary said last year.

It said the HET's policy was based on a "misrepresentation of the law".

Since then its head, Dave Cox, has departed and Mr Baggott and the Board are considering options for reform, lawyer for the HET Ken Boyd said.

He said a draft report into Mr Brown's murder had been prepared by an officer who has left the HET and a new officer was reviewing work carried out as he will become responsible for the new report.

"The draft report cannot be handed to the families at this stage because it has to be quality assured. The new officer has to be sure that he is happy with the report before it goes out," he told the Belfast hearing.

He said there was an embargo on handing reports to families at present.

"Once the decision has been made as to how the new HET will be formulated, then the work will commence again."

Work will continue on the review in the interim period.

Mr Brown, 61, was murdered by loyalists in Bellaghy, Co Londonderry in 1997 and an inquest into his death has been repeatedly delayed.

Mr Leckey said: "As presently resourced the coroner's service cannot give any commitment to specify a date for the holding of this inquest.

"I personally am involved in the inquests that are known as the Stalker inquests (probing whether security forces operated a shoot to kill policy)."

Mr Boyd said preparatory work on legal documents should be complete by May or June. Around 24 files have to be considered by the coroner before the full inquest can be held.

The coroner observed: "With a fair wind, if we arrive at the point that an inquest can be held, I will pull out all the stops to have the hearing as soon as possible."

Family lawyer Ian Skelt urged the coroner to schedule the inquest for the autumn if possible but said he was aware that his diary was full with other cases.

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