Campaigners begin legal battle against UK Government's Northern Ireland Troubles amnesty law

Victims campaigner Raymond McCord speaks to the media outside the Royal Courts of Justice, Belfast, where a series of legal challenges to the UK Government's new legacy legislation are set to be mentioned. A number of judicial review challenges are being taken by relatives of people killed in Northern Ireland's Troubles. PA
Victims campaigner Raymond McCord left speaks to the media outside the Royal Courts of Justice. Credit: PA

A victims campaigner made a graveside pledge to obtain justice for his murdered son before attending the start of a major legal fight against the UK Government’s controversial new legacy laws. Raymond McCord is taking one of the 16 challenges lodged so far in response to the legislation aimed at dealing with Northern Ireland’s violent past. The Belfast man, whose 22-year-old son Raymond McCord Jr was murdered by loyalist paramilitaries in 1997, revealed that he visited the cemetery on the outskirts of the city en route to the preliminary High Court hearing.

He said: “I put roses on Raymond’s grave and told him ‘I will keep my promise son, I will get you justice’. “In 26 years I have never done that before any other cases, but that’s how strongly I feel about this.” A raft of applications for judicial review have been brought against the fiercely opposed Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Act. The legislation, which received Royal Assent on Monday, offers a conditional amnesty to those accused of conflict-related offences. It will also bring an end to future civil litigation and inquests into deaths which occurred during more than 30 years of violence. The Government described it as an attempt to draw a line under Northern Ireland’s troubled history. But it has drawn criticism from all main political parties in the region and victims groups resisting any attempt to ban prosecutions or remove access to justice. Lawyers for those mounting the challenges claim the legislation is unconstitutional, unlawful and incompatible with the Human Rights Act. During today’s initial review, a judge urged all lawyers to identify lead cases in a bid to streamline and fast-track proceedings. Counsel representing the Government argued that the “proliferation” of cases raised similar points. Tony McGleenan KC said they cover events ranging from 1971 to the mid 1990s, and indicated that in some there may be a dispute over the legally required status of being a victim. Suggesting that individual cases should be selected for judicial scrutiny, he submitted: “There is a great degree of overlap and commonality. “Every single one I have seen has sought expedition, but it will not be possible if the court has to address 16 or more judicial review applications.” Addressing the packed courtroom, Mr Justice Colton agreed with the need to identify individual challenges which address all of the relevant issues. “There is absolutely no benefit to anybody in multiple cases arguing exactly the same point,” he said. But the judge stressed: “I can assure everybody that all legal arguments will be considered by the court. “I want to do so as expeditiously as possible, to ensure all legal arguments can be adjudicated upon.” Proceedings were adjourned until September 28, at which stage the lead cases are expected to be confirmed. The new legislation involves the establishment of an Independent Commission for Reconciliation and Information Recovery (ICRIR) which aims to help victims’ relatives discover more about how they were killed. Self-confessed perpetrators who cooperate and provide a truthful account to the legacy body headed up by former Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland Sir Declan Morgan may be offered immunity from prosecution. Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris has insisted that the controversial legislation is aimed at delivering better outcomes for those most affected by the Troubles while helping society move forward. But it is widely predicted that the legal challenges will ultimately reach the Supreme Court. Following the preliminary hearing Mr McCord welcomed the approach taken by the judge. “He didn’t make a big fuss, it was just about getting this moving,” the campaigner said. “Every victim who was there this morning would have appreciated that.”

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