HARTE COYLE COLLINS SOLICITORS & ADVOCATES
NI HIGH COURT TO HEAR CHALLENGE AGAINST ATTORNEY GENERAL ON REFUSAL TO GRANT INQUEST INTO FATAL SHOOTING OF THOMAS BURNS BY ARMY ON 12TH JULY 1972
14th MARCH 2022
The family of Thomas Aquinas Burns have been granted leave by the High Court in Belfast to challenge a decision by the Attorney General’s not to grant a fresh inquest. The original 1973 inquest returned a verdict of “misadventure”. Thomas Burns was shot by a British soldier as he left the Glenpark Social Club in North Belfast in the early hours of 13th July 1972. He died from the gunshot the following day. Thomas Burns had served with the British Royal Navy in Singapore and Scotland before returning to settle with his wife and 4 young children in Belfast.
The first stage of the judicial review challenge was heard by the Court in Belfast in February 2022. High Court judge Mr Justice Humphreys, who is also the Presiding Coroner for Belfast, granted leave on the 11th March 2022 for a full hearing into the legal challenge on a further date to be fixed. The current Attorney General has now asked the Court for time to consider the leave judgement and the case is listed for a review in early April 2022.
Lawyers acting for Patricia Burns, daughter of Thomas, applied to the Attorney General for Northern Ireland for a fresh inquest in 2015. Further submissions were made by Ms Burns lawyers in 2019 in relation to the verdict of misadventure returned by inquest jury in April 1973. In his response in 2019 the then Attorney General, Mr John Larkin QC, accepted that Thomas Burns was an innocent victim, and that the verdict of misadventure was wrong in both fact and law. However, he refused the family a fresh inquest on the basis that there was no usefulness to an inquest 47 years after their father was killed.
The family sought leave of the High Court by way of judicial review procedure to challenge the 2019 negative decision of the previous Attorney General.
In 2013 the Historical Enquiries Team (HET) identified and liased with new witnesses, some of whom were British soldiers on duty in Glenpark Street and Louisa Street at the time Thomas Burns was killed. One of those soldiers witnessed the shooting. That witness confirmed to the HET that the statement, which was purported to be his, which was submitted to the 1973 inquest, was not in fact his evidence. He also reported that his recollection of the events and his location at the time Thomas Burns was shot were different from the information contained in the statements of other soldiers. This new evidence called into doubt the veracity and validity of the statements provided by other soldiers at the time of the original inquest. Both the HET and the Attorney General accepted that Thomas Burns was an entirely innocent victim of the Troubles.
The written Court judgement granting leave on Friday 11th March 2022 states that;[
“It is striking that nowhere in the detailed correspondence passing between the applicant’s solicitors and the AGO does the latter address the issue of the alleged fabrication of statements on behalf of soldiers. On that basis, and despite the claim that all submissions were considered, I have determined that there is an arguable case to be made that the AG failed to take into account a material consideration, namely that one of the soldiers now says that a statement was falsely attributed to him and handed into the coroner at the original inquest. This not only calls the version of events into doubt but also calls for further investigation in its own right.
 The decision of the AG is also based on the proposition that the ‘shooter’ would be entitled to invoke the privilege against self-incrimination and decline to answer questions. This is, of course, a feature of any inquest involving a violent death and is a matter with which coroners are familiar. As the Court of Appeal recently held in M4 –v- Coroners Service  NICA 6, the proper course of action is for a witness to be compelled to attend to give evidence and the privilege invoked, if sought, at an appropriate time. This does not mean that someone who is suspected of causing a death cannot given important and material evidence to a coroner charged with carrying out an inquest. I am satisfied that there is an arguable case that the AG failed to consider this feature of the potential evidence which could be presented to a fresh inquest.
 The AG has also asserted that the ‘gunman’ firing from the social club has never been identified. This proposition appears to emanate from the same flawed analysis as the HET Report and does not recognise that, on the sworn evidence of the civilian witnesses, there was no such gunman. There is also therefore an arguable case that the AG had failed to have proper regard to the evidence as a whole, both that which was given at the original inquest and the new material generated through the HET process.”
Patricia Burns said on behalf of the family today;
“The family are delighted to have been granted leave for a full hearing by the High Court Judge. We retain our faith that the courts in Northern Ireland will not let people be treated as second class citizens. We need to re-write history for myself, my family, and my children, and most importantly for my Daddy.”
Nichola Harte, of Harte Coyle Collins, Solicitors & Advocates said today;
“The 1973 inquest verdict of misadventure regarding Mr Burn’s killing is incorrect in fact and in law. The previous Attorney General accepted this in correspondence. The same Attorney General maintained that there is no usefulness in a fresh inquest. Given the new evidence contained in the HET Review, this cannot be either correct or appropriate. The shooting of Thomas Burns was a mindless assassination, not an accident or a reaction. The rule of law must apply and be upheld. Our client awaits the reconsideration of her request for a fresh inquest by the current Attorney General on foot of the grant of leave by the High Court.”
The family of Thomas Burns are supported in their campaign for information, justice and accountability by their lawyers and Relatives for Justice. In November 2019 RFJ published a Report on the murder of Thomas Burns by the British Army on the 13th of July 1972. Copies of the Report are available from RFJ.