Legacy Act: Immunity for Troubles-era killings breaches human rights law - judge

Victims of the Troubles took judicial review against UK government legislation and welcome review’s findings

Conditional immunity from prosecutions for Troubles-related killings, a central clause of the UK government’s controversial Legacy Act, is in breach of international human rights law, a judge has ruled.

Mr Justice Colton told the High Court in Belfast he was “satisfied” the provisions for immunity from prosecution under section 19 of the Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Act were in breach of articles 2 and 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and article 2 of the Windsor Framework (WF) and this part of the legislation should be disapplied.

Running to more than 200 pages, a summary of the judgment was read to victims’ families and campaigners in the packed courtroom over a two-hour period on Wednesday morning.

The judge described it as a “very difficult and complex case”.


Dealing with the issue of immunity being offered to perpetrators of conflict-era crimes if they co-operate with a new UK body set up by the Act, the Independent Commission for Reconciliation and Information Recovery (ICRIR), he said: “There is no evidence that the granting of immunity under the Act will in any way contribute to reconciliation in Northern Ireland; indeed, the evidence is to the contrary.”

He also ruled that part of the legislation which stipulated an end to Troubles-related civil claims was incompatible with article 6 of the ECHR and article 2 of the WF and “should therefore be disapplied”.

In a ruling he referred to as a “mixed bag”, the judge concluded however that the ICRIR had had sufficient independence and powers to effectively investigate deaths and offences linked to the Troubles.

The Legacy Act, which became law in September, replaces current methods of criminal and civil investigations and inquests with inquiries by the new UK investigative body, the ICRIR, and offers conditional immunity to those suspected of offences in what has been branded an effective amnesty.

The Act is fiercely opposed by the North’s main political parties, the Irish Government, US politicians and human rights groups. The High Court legal challenge was brought by relatives of victims and the survivor of a shooting.

Speaking outside the court following the judgment, Martina Dillon, whose husband Seamus (45) was shot dead by loyalists when he was working as a doorman outside a disco at a Co Tyrone hotel in 1997, said the day had not gone exactly as she would have planned as it was like a “half-win”.

An inquest into Mr Dillon’s death opened last April but was then paused. If it is not completed before the May 1st cut-off date, it could end without findings.

Mrs Dillion vowed to “fight on” for her husband – who was killed in retaliation of the murder of Loyalist Volunteer Force (LVF) leader Billy Wright – and said it had been a “long 26 years”.

“But I ain’t going nowhere. No government and no court is going to put me down. I think my husband is entitled to truth and justice and that is the last and only thing I can give him.”

In the wake of the ruling, Northern Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris told the House of Commons the UK government “remains committed to implementing the Legacy Act”.

But Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs Micheál Martin said the judgment was “not a surprise”.

“The High Court case reflects, I think, the legal advice we received also,” he told reporters on Wednesday.

Asked if the ruling could bolster’s Ireland’s interstate case against the UK government over the legislation, Mr Martin replied that the European Court would “take its decision in respect of the case and the submissions that we’ve made”.

“It’s a matter for the British government, obviously, we await the response from the British government in respect of this but this is not a surprise to us,” he added.

Solicitor Darragh Mackin, of Phoenix Law, who acts for the families, said he was aware that Mr Heaton-Harris had indicated the UK government would appeal the High Court judgment.

“If so, we’re ready for it,” he told reporters outside the court.

“This will go the whole way to the Supreme Court. This can be distilled down to a very simple point: the Secretary of State’s proposal was built on the foundation of immunity. The court has struck that proposal out. Those foundations are gone, it’s time to go back to the drawing board.”

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Seanín Graham

Seanín Graham

Seanín Graham is Northern Correspondent of The Irish Times

Freya McClements

Freya McClements

Freya McClements is Northern Editor of The Irish Times