Northern Ireland’s highest court has ruled that the Executive Office is under a legal duty to fund a payment scheme for victims of the Troubles.
The judgment by the Court of Appeal on Tuesday gives the parties four weeks to find a solution.
Tuesday's judgment was the result of a challenge by Brian Turley, one of the "Hooded Men", who suffered mental health problems due to interrogation techniques used by the British army in 1971.
Mr Turley, who took the case, said the judgment confirmed there was “no justifiable reason for delaying the payments to victims”.
“The need to keep taking cases to court to obtain what I am entitled to is another form of torture,” he said. “I welcome the Lord Chief Justice’s comments that no further delay will be tolerated, and look forward to seeing this matter resolved before March 5th.”
The scheme, which would provide an annual payment to people who suffered physical or mental injury “through no fault of their own”, has been stalled amid disputes over eligibility and deadlock between the British government and the Northern Executive over who should pay the estimated £800 million (€910 million) cost.
More than 500 people who sustained serious physical and psychological injuries are estimated to be eligible for the payments which, depending on the severity of their injuries, will be worth between £2,000 and £10,000 annually.
It was introduced by the North’s Secretary of State in January 2020, and should have opened for applications in May.
In August, a judge ruled that the North’s Executive was acting unlawfully in delaying the introduction of the scheme following a legal challenge.
On Tuesday, a spokesman for the Executive Office said ministers remained committed to delivering the victims’ payment scheme, but the issue of pressure on the block grant - the money provided to the Executive by the UK government - “remains to be resolved”.
Ministers had requested a meeting with the Northern Secretary “at the earliest opportunity to address this matter urgently,” the spokesman said, but he had not yet agreed a date for the meeting.
A UK government spokesman said the Northern Secretary had been consistent in his support for the scheme, and had “always been clear that the devolved funding settlement means that the Executive is funded through the block grant, together with its own revenue raising capabilities to deliver its statutory responsibilities, including this scheme.
"The UK Government has provided unprecedented levels of funding to the Northern Ireland Executive this year. The spending review for 21/22 provides a further increase in funding for the Executive of more than £900m," he said.
The North's First Minister, Arlene Foster, said that while the payments "will be made from the Northern Ireland Executive, there is a strong argument that the [UK]government should be increasing the Northern Ireland budget accordingly to fund the pension.
“After all, some of the eligible claimants live outside Northern Ireland,” she said. “I have been pressing this with the [UK]Government and we need to see action.”
In a statement, the Court of Appeal said the court “declared that there is a legal duty on the Executive Office to fund victims’ payments and lump sums under the 2020 Regulations so that the Board can make the necessary payments in accordance with Regulation 23.
“It expressed no view on the dispute between the Northern Ireland Executive and the Northern Ireland Office on the source of the funding.”
The appeal was adjourned for four weeks "to allow the parties to find an agreed solution". If this is not possible, "the case will be relisted on notice to the Department of Finance as an additional notice party".
Mr Turley's solicitor, Darragh Mackin of Phoenix Law, said the Court of Appeal judgment "makes it unequivocally clear that there is, and has always been, a legal duty on the Executive Office to make the payments necessary for the purposes of the legacy victims' pensions".
“Our client, who is a victim of state-sponsored torture, has waited long enough for the pension to which he is legally entitled.
“Whilst it is regrettable that he has had to pursue litigation of this kind to obtain the victim’s pension, this case again epitomises the importance of judicial review and access to justice in cases of this kind, when there are victims’ fundamental rights at stake.”