More than 30 lawsuits against a west Belfast man accused of being Britain's former top spy inside the IRA will not be put on hold until a major criminal investigation is completed, a High Court judge in Northern Ireland ruled today.
Mr Justice Horner refused to stay the civil actions brought over alleged wrongdoings by Freddie Scappaticci, who denies that he was the agent codenamed Stakeknife.
Scappaticci’s suspected activities while in charge of the IRA’s internal security unit are at the centre of an ongoing police inquiry into a series of murders, abductions and possible State misconduct.
Jon Boutcher, the former chief constable of Bedfordshire heading the Operation Kenova investigation, wanted the court to postpone all civil claims until his investigation and any related criminal proceedings are finalised.
The application was refused, however, due to potential ongoing delay and the entitlement to a fair and expeditious trial of the actions under Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
Mr Justice Horner pointed out that the alleged offences occurred up to 35 years ago. “Memories inevitably are fading, some of those involved in the litigation or those who will be important witnesses have died and some are not in good health,” he said. “Further substantial delay would affect both the nature of the witness testimonies available to the court and the quality of such testimony.”
Scappaticci (75) is facing a total of 32 separate lawsuits over his alleged activities as part of the IRA's so-called "Nutting Squad". He left Northern Ireland for a secret location in 2003 after being widely named as the agent Stakenife. Before quitting his home he vehemently denied that he was the prized British spy within the ranks of the republican movement.
In one case he is being sued, along with the Ministry of Defence (MoD) and the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI), by Newry woman Margaret Keely. She alleged that she was wrongfully arrested and held at Castlereagh police station in 1994 following an IRA attempt to murder a senior detective in east Belfast.
Ms Keeley was released without charge, but claims she was then taken to a flat in the New Lodge area of the city and questioned by an IRA team. Scappaticci was one of the men who carried out two debriefing sessions, according to her account.
During the police application for a stay on the civil claims, the court heard Operation Kenova detectives are preparing files on more than 20 murders to be submitted to the Public Prosecution Service by the end of this year. Detectives believe they have uncovered evidence of criminal wrongdoing by both IRA and security force members.
Fears were expressed that it could have a “chilling” effect on co-operation from victims and witnesses if material is disclosed during the civil litigation.
Terrorist organisations are still actively trying to prevent the prosecution of their members, as well as identifying those who may assist with the ongoing inquiries, the court was told.
An affidavit from Mr Boutcher disclosed that his investigation team are processing: 20 murder cases involving 21 victims; 19 abduction cases involving 20 alleged victims; category-two cases involving 16 persons of interest in State misconduct cases; and a perjury case. Decisions are also to be taken on 27 suspects named in files already sent to the prosecution service.
With the Operation Kenova team yet to finalise two further batches of files relating to eight murders and four abductions, it was contended that the integrity of the investigation is at stake. They argued that closed material proceedings – so-called secret court hearings – could deal with any concerns over sensitive documents and avoid further delay.
Rejecting the application for a stay, Mr Justice Horner said it was imperative that some progress is made in all of the civil claims. He set out the way forward, including a case management hearing next month and directions for the parties to try and reach agreement on how to progress the claims.
Solicitors for those taking civil action against Scappaticci welcomed the court’s decision. Claire McKeegan, who represents Ms Keeley, said her client was relieved and reassured that a case initiated in 2008 will finally progress to trial.
Ms McKeegan claimed: "She was kidnapped and tortured by an agent of the State, Frederick Scappaticci, and deserves to get justice and accountability at long last. At every turn the PSNI and MoD have attempted to delay these cases being heard in open courts."
Setanta Marley of KRW Law described it as a step towards closure for some of those affected by the Troubles. He said: "It's a massive boost for all those families and many others taking legal action, alleging IRA-State collusion, and it's a timely reminder to the Government that the courts will take all steps to protect and advance their right to litigate on the conflict."