By Jonathan McCambridge, PA
The UK government’s proposals for an end to legal cases relating to Northern Ireland’s Troubles are offensive “morally, constitutionally and legally”, a prominent lawyer has said.
Kevin Winters, whose legal firm deals with a large number of legacy cases, said that he believed the government was trying to shut down court examinations of allegations of state collusion with both loyalist and republican paramilitaries.
In July, the Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis announced plans for a statute of limitations which would end all prosecutions for Troubles incidents up to April 1998 and would apply to military veterans as well as ex-paramilitaries.
The proposals, which British prime minister Boris Johnson said would allow Northern Ireland to “draw a line under the Troubles”, would also end all legacy inquests and civil actions.
The package of measures also included a new truth recovery body and an oral history initiative.
But the move has been condemned by all the main political parties in Northern Ireland as well as the Irish Government and a range of victims’ and survivors’ groups.
This week Mr Lewis said that his autumn deadline for legislating on the controversial legacy proposals has been missed.
Mr Winters told the BBC Inside Politics programme that he believed there had been “misinformation” that the proposals relate mainly to criminal investigations.
He said: “When you pick it apart and look at the Command Paper, it involves so many more cases, civil actions, judicial reviews and inquests.
This draconian proposal is an amnesty for everything and that means effectively a shut-down of the courts
“As a proportion of the overall conflict related cases, criminal investigations is chronically small. You could count them on one hand.
“The real thrust of this is relation to civil actions, inquests and judicial review proceedings.
“This draconian proposal is an amnesty for everything and that means effectively a shut-down of the courts.
“So we have had the difficult task over the last number of months of speaking to families and telling them that their cases will no longer be able to be before the courts.
“And the whole notion that a family who have invested a huge amount of time, 10 years in many cases, trying to agitate on issues involving the taking of a life, the killing of their loved ones, to say to them that this government is now saying goodbye to their case is a very difficult concept.
“It offends morally, it is constitutionally wrong and legally it is unlawful.”
Mr Winters also challenged a statement in the UK government’s Command Paper which said £500 million had been spent on legal aid in legacy cases in Northern Ireland.
He added: “Those statistics are completely and utterly wrong and we have already taken issue with that with the authorities.
“Those are figures released on legal aid generally. The actual legal aid spend on legacy proposals is minimal.
“At least half of the clients that we represent are not legally aided and have had to deal with these cases without any form of funding whatsoever.
“The proposal is to shut down everything, it is the sort of thing that chimes from a Third World country or a South American junta.
“The notion that a citizen is no longer able to access the courts offends all sorts of moral, constitutional and legal issues. It can’t stand up to legal challenge.”
The lawyer continued: “All sorts of contentious intelligences issues are now before the courts and I think that is what the government is worried about.
“Not just in relation to allegations of loyalist state collusion, but also republican state collusion.
“Those sorts of issues before the courts is a very difficult concept for this government.”