UK High Court hears legal challenges to recently enacted Northern Ireland Troubles Bill  News
Lasse1974, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
UK High Court hears legal challenges to recently enacted Northern Ireland Troubles Bill 

The UK High Court began hearing on Wednesday 16 legal challenges, filed mostly by victims’ families, against the recently enacted Northern Ireland (Troubles & Reconciliation) Act. The act, which grants amnesty to former soldiers and militants involved in an ethno-nationalist conflict in Northern Ireland known as the Troubles, became law on Tuesday when it received Royal Assent.

JURIST spoke to one of the victims’ legal representatives, Gavin Booth, on Wednesday. He said, “16 judicial review applications have been received so far, involving victims’ cases ranging from 1971 through to the mid-1990s.” The action has  been lodged in Belfast’s High Court to challenge the adequacy of the investigations and the ban on civil claims contained in the new law. Booth said his clients remain “steadfast” in their challenges to the new law. “This Act represents a clear departure from the rule of law and is a significant interference in the justice system by denying victims access to the courts. These families deserve better from the UK government,” he told JURIST.

Solicitors with Madden & Finucane Solicitors filed six of the 16 judicial review applications. According to a statement from their firm, they are “challenging the lawfulness of this legislation and its compatibility with international human rights standards.” They also stated their intention to lodge “applications for families directly affected by this legislation to the [European Court of Human Rights] in Strasbourg over the coming weeks.” The six victims and families currently represented by Madden & Finucane Solicitors include Billy Thompson, Jonathan McKerr, Una Eakin, Linda Hewitt, Teresa Jordan and Eamon Cairns.

Amnesty International joined in voicing support for victims of the Troubles and their families, saying, “Despite thinly-veiled attempts by the Government to portray the law as an act of reconciliation, it plainly serves to put perpetrators above the law and beyond accountability.”

These legal challenges come as the Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Act 2023 entered into law on Tuesday after receiving Royal Assent, the final stage at which a bill becomes law in the UK Parliament.

In a Tuesday statement, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Chris Heaton-Harris said:

I recognise getting to this juncture has been a hugely difficult task for all. The legislation contains finely balanced political and moral choices….If we are truly to provide greater information, accountability and acknowledgement to victims and families of the Troubles and help society to move forward in the spirit of reconciliation, we must build a legacy process founded on integrity, expertise and fairness.

Parliament first received the act in May 2022. It aimed to address the Troubles by promoting and establishing the Independent Commission for Reconciliation and Information Recovery. The act also aimed to limit criminal investigations, legal proceedings, inquests and police complaints. The act build upon the Northern Ireland (Sentences Act) of 1998 by extending the prisoner release scheme. It also provides “for experiences to be recorded and preserved and for events to be studied and memorialised, and to provide for the validity of interim custody orders.”

In October 2022, however, the UK Joint Committee on Human Rights condemned the Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Act 2023 as a risk to human rights law in the UK. The committee cited concerns with the act involving various provisions of the European Convention on Human Rights. Ultimately, the committee urged “the Government to reconsider its approach and to put forward a Convention-compliant solution.”

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk also criticized the bill in January, writing, “I urge the UK to reconsider its approach and engage in further meaningful and inclusive consultations on how best to advance a human rights-centred way to address the legacy of the Troubles.”

In 2021, inquests into the deaths of ten people in Northern Ireland’s capital Belfast during a British Army operation in August 1971 concluded that all of them were civilians who posed no threat to the soldiers, and that the use of force by the army was “clearly disproportionate.” The Troubles spanned the 1960’s through the 1990’s and resulted in the death of approximately 3,720 people, with over 47,500 more injured.