Northern Ireland High Court upholds decision of the Attorney General to refuse a fresh inquest due to lack of evidence

A Belfast High Court has held that the Attorney General for Northern Ireland (AG) is not under obligation of Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) to order a fresh inquest into the death of a man during the troubles. The applicant, a daughter of the deceased, had claimed that a new inquest was required to discharge the investigative obligations of the State under Article 2 and that the AG had misdirected himself on this issue. The Court held that the AG’s conclusion could not be condemned on public law grounds or otherwise.

In August 1988, a man (person A) along with another man, were kidnapped and held by the IRA. Person A’s neighbours became concerned after he was missing from his home for a period of time. Mr Sean Eugene Dalton and two other neighbours gained entry to A’s flat on 31 August 1988 in an attempt to locate A however by doing so triggered an explosive device which was fatal to all persons.

Following the death of Mr. Dalton, an inquest was held before the Coroner for District of Londonderry which found that Mr Dalton “died from injuries received when an explosive device was detonated at No. 38 Kildrum Gardens, Londonderry around 11.50 am on 31 August 1988”. Mr Dalton’s son made a complaint in 2005 which was taken up by the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland and investigated.  After a prolonged investigative period a Public Statement pursuant to Section 62 of the Police (NI) Act 1998 was published by the Ombudsman on 10 July 2013. Dr Michael Maguire’s report stated that there was no certainty the police knew there was a bomb specifically at the deceased address there was however significant evidence that the police had sufficient intelligence to pinpoint the location of the explosive device. The report went on to state that the police should have been aware that the explosive device was in the vicinity of Mr Dalton’s address. The report concluded that steps could and ultimately should have been taken by the police to diminish the threat and to raise the alarm within the local community. 

Mr Dalton’s daughter made an application to the High Court having been rejected by the European Court of Human Rights in 2015 on the grounds that domestic remedies had not yet been exhausted. The High Court held that the adjectival duty of the State pursuant to Article 2 had been addressed at the time of the investigation and thus there was no continuing duty. The central question was, however, whether that duty had changed in the wake of the Ombudsman’s report in 2013 and if that duty extended to an obligation to commission a new inquest.

In its decision the Court emphasised the leading decision of the European Court of Human Rights on this topic Brecknell v The United Kingdom, which emphasised the prosecution and conviction of perpetrators. Essentially stating that it was entirely speculative on the evidence available that a re-examination of this matter at an inquest might lead to disclosure of intelligence information at that time identifying persons involved in the planting of the explosives device. Ultimately Justice Deeny found this to be a “very frail basis for saying that the AG was entitled to let alone obliged to order such an inquest”. Justice Denny went on to emphasis a lack of evidence to suggest any police collusion was apparent in causing the death of the applicant father. In its decision the Court emphasised the importance of considering the public interest, particularly the financial and human cost of ordering a further inquest.

Click here to read the judgement in full.




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