Concerns raised Muckamore inquiry may never resume if put on hold

Muckamore Abbey Hospital. PA Images.
Muckamore Abbey Hospital Credit: PA images

A legal bid to suspend the public inquiry into alleged abuse at Muckamore Abbey Hospital could stymie it for years to come, the High Court heard on Friday.

Fears were also expressed that the tribunal may never be able to resume if put on hold until simultaneous criminal proceedings are completed.

The hospital facilities in County Antrim are at the centre of the largest-ever police investigation into allegations that vulnerable patients were subjected to ill-treatment.

More than 70 members of staff have been suspended as a precaution, with at least 34 people arrested and eight facing charges.

One of those accused of wrongdoing is applying to judicially review Health Minister Robin Swann’s decision not to stop the public inquiry pending the outcome of a criminal prosecution against them.

The individual, referred to as JR 222 under an anonymity order, claims the publicity surrounding those hearings will prejudice their right to a fair trial.

But Sean Doran KC, representing the inquiry, argued that steps have been taken along with police and prosecutors to protect the integrity of the criminal process.

With the tribunal due to resume later this month, the court heard that any ruling in favour of JR 222 would be potentially damaging and could even impact on its future viability.

Mr Doran said: “The applicant’s case is on the verge of being returned to the Crown Court, but it is reasonable to assume that the criminal proceedings arising from the investigation as a whole may extend over a period of several years.

“If the applicant were successful, the logic would point to a suspension pending completion of these criminal proceedings as a whole.

“The grant of relief sought specifically in this case would obviously stymie the work of the inquiry for a substantial period.”

That potential outcome has raised “the not unreasonable fear that the inquiry may have difficulty in ever resuming, given the likely timespan of the outworking of the criminal process”, according to counsel.

Mr Justice Colton was told of the difficulties faced by many involved in giving evidence to the inquiry.

“It would be devastating for many if they were not to be told that their stories may not be heard for some considerable time,” Mr Doran contended.

“It would be a rather drastic measure for the inquiry to be stopped effectively on the basis of the submissions by a defendant that they cannot have a fair trial at some point in the future, particularly when they have the benefit of a criminal trial system that is fully capable of protecting their fair trial rights at an appropriate time.”

JR 222’s legal representatives disputed that “apocalyptic vision”.

John Larkin KC maintained that Mr Swann misdirected himself and failed to apply the correct legal test when considering whether it was necessary to suspend hearings under the Inquiries Act 2005.

The decision reached in June was irrational, unfair and breached his client’s Article 6 right to a fair trial under European law, he argued.

“It’s quite clear that (the Minister) simply got the test wrong,” Mr Larkin said.

However, a barrister for the Department of Health insisted the legal challenge was premature when possible alternative remedies and powers to control media reporting are available.

Peter Coll KC told the court: “The application is the proverbial sledgehammer to crack a nut.”  

Reserving judgment, Mr Justice Colton pledged to give his decision at some stage next week.

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