Alleged abuse victims are refusing to sign statements to a major inquiry into historical offences at care homes unless they secure legal funding, the Court of Appeal in Belfast has heard.
Concerns were expressed at the apparent increase in the number of potential witnesses said to be holding off.
Sir Anthony Hart, chairman of the Historical Institutional Abuse (HIA) Inquiry, is challenging a High Court verdict that he unfairly denied legal representation to a victim.
The woman at the centre of the case claims she was abused by a "very high-profile figure". She is due to give evidence at HIA hearings in Banbridge, Co Down, which are investigating child abuse in Northern Ireland residential institutions between 1922 and 1995.
The inquiry has so far heard from more than 100 victims and survivors of abuse, most of whom were in the care of the Catholic Church at homes in Derry and Kircubbin in Co Down.
Others were part of a state approved child migrant scheme to Australia. The focus has now shifted to the former Nazareth House and Nazareth Lodge in Belfast. The woman behind the legal challenge claims she suffered years of physical, sexual and mental abuse while in the care of the Sisters of Nazareth.
She also separately alleges that an unidentified high-profile figure targeted her outside of the home.
But ahead of testifying she applied to have lawyers act for her at public expense. Mr Hart, a retired High Court judge, turned down her request after deciding it was not in the public interest because she was unlikely to be criticised during the inquiry or in its report focused on system failures.
A judicial review challenge to the refusal claimed it was unlawful and would give an unfair advantage to alleged abusers permitted legal representation. In a ruling in January Mr Justice Treacy said a bar had effectively been erected against her and others who claim they suffered sexual and physical assaults. He held that cost implications do not remove the public law necessity for legal representation out of public funds if fairness requires it.
Although a direction was given for the inquiry to reconsider the woman’s application Mr Hart is now seeking to have the determination overturned.
Opening the challenge, Joseph Aiken, for the HIA, told a panel of three appeal judge how, since the High Court verdict, there has been an apparent "policy" of witness statements remaining unsigned unless public funding is provided. The barrister stressed he did not want to misstate what he referred to as a "blockage".
But his disclosure prompted Lord Justice Coghlin to remark: "I would be genuinely concerned about this practice developing from a legal point of view."
According to Mr Aiken the potential ramifications for the inquiry were one of the reasons for bringing the appeal. “It has to function on a rolling basis,” he stressed.
With one of the next institutions examined set to be St Patrick’s Training School in Belfast, Mr Aiken said: “There are three individuals who have said they won’t sign witness statements unless the inquiry first provides public funding for lawyers to give them advice.”
Focusing on the woman at the centre of the legal challenge, Lord Justice Girvan categorised her evidence as being "out of the ordinary". The court heard her allegations are so serious and against such a high-profile figure that it "cries out" for her to be granted legal representation. The appeal continues.