MoD delaying inquest to benefit from ‘morally corrupt’ legacy laws, barrister says
The Ministry of Defence is delaying an inquest for a man shot dead by soldiers to benefit from “morally corrupt” laws that will prevent the case being heard, a coroner has been warned.
A lawyer accused the MoD of ambushing the family of Patrick Duffy with a letter informing them that work to security vet and disclose evidence files to the planned inquest cannot start until April next year.
The ministry claims the hold-up is due to resourcing issues and the significant caseload already facing the two specialists it has deployed to examine historical files linked to legacy killings in Northern Ireland.
Mr Duffy, 50, was shot dead in November 1978 at a house in the Brandywell area of Derry by British soldiers.
In 2019, Attorney General John Larkin directed that a fresh inquest should take place following a campaign for a fresh probe by the victim’s family.
The inquest is one of several legacy cases being progressed through the coroners’ court in Northern Ireland.
While many of the historical inquests have concluded, several have yet to begin, including Mr Duffy’s.
The schedule of work in the coroners’ court is proceeding at the same time as the Government is putting controversial legacy laws through Parliament.
The draft legislation, which is not yet enacted, would offer immunity from prosecution for people accused of Troubles offences, as long as they cooperate with a new truth recovery body, and also halt future civil cases and inquests linked to killings during the conflict.
Barrister Stephen Toal, representing the Duffy family, expressed frustration with the MoD stance during a preliminary inquest hearing in Belfast today.
He said he received the MoD’s letter “five minutes” before the lunchtime hearing convened.
“I’m trying to be quite measured in what I’m saying, but it feels like a bit of an ambush which is quite ironic considering the way in which the deceased died,” he told coroner Fiona Bagnall.
“The suggestion that they will not start the work until mid-April ’23 means that the MoD are dictating the timetable and accruing an advantage because, by delaying this case, it will meet with the guillotine that has been created by the Tory government’s morally corrupt and unjust legacy litigation Bill.
“That means that this inquest will never go ahead. And it’s because of a resourcing issue?”
Earlier, Martin Wolfe KC, acting for the MoD, said the ministry’s two “subject matter experts” were currently dealing with a workload that included completing disclosure for 12 legacy inquests before next April; working on disclosure on other inquests; as well as engaging in similar work for civil cases involving the MoD.
He claimed an earlier plan established by the court authorities to deal with inquests in an “orderly, organised and prioritised method” had been “passed to one side”.
“It’s just not feasible to progress sensitive disclosure in this case, as well as servicing the requirements of other ongoing inquests,” he said.
After Mr Wolfe said the process would begin in April, Ms Bagnall asked the barrister when it would be completed.
“I can’t answer that question – I don’t know,” he replied.
Responding, Mr Toal told the court that the MoD had 60,000 civil employees and a budget of £40 billion.
“And they’re saying that they only have two people to deal with this,” he said.
“We say that that is wrong on every level and that the court should not permit that.”
After the exchange, counsel for the coroner Ian Skelt KC told Ms Bagnall that one option could see her convene the inquest ahead of the disclosure being completed, so it would not fall foul of the looming legislation.
He said the inquest could formally commence, deal with some evidence, and then adjourn until the material related to the MoD disclosure was ready.
Ms Bagnall asked the legal parties to make submissions on this potential way forward.
She listed the case for a further preliminary hearing on January 12 to discuss the submissions.