Northern Ireland

Public records office withheld files unlawfully: solicitor

Public Records office
Image caption The public records office stores millions of documents

Millions of documents covering hundreds of years of history lie within the vaults of the public records office for Northern Ireland (PRONI).

Its job is to preserve and make available records about the past, but it has been accused of acting unlawfully by refusing to do just that.

The files it retains include court papers from inquests into dozens of controversial killings.

When a solicitor acting for the families of two men killed by loyalists made what he considered a routine Freedom of Information request for court papers about the killings, he was told no.

Padraig O Muirigh was seeking information about the deaths of Gabriel Wiggins, who was shot dead by the UVF in September 1979, and Francis Toner, who was killed by members of the same paramilitary organisation in May 1982.

In a letter explaining the decision, PRONI said the decision had been taken after reviewing the files, and information it received as part of a consultation with the Historical Enquiries Team.

The letter said it would "not be in the public interest to release any information at this stage" and that providing access to the documents "would be likely to prejudice the detection of crime, the apprehension or prosecution of offenders, and the administration of justice".

Fresh inquests

PRONI argued that it would not be in the public interest to release information held in witness statements contained in the file "that may still be of assistance to the PSNI (Police Service of Northern Ireland) or HET".

The solicitor rejects that argument, pointing out that inquests are public hearings held to determine the cause and circumstances of deaths.

"This material was already in the public domain because the inquests were held in public so the argument that releasing the material could jeopardise the administration of justice just doesn't make any sense," said Mr O Muirigh.

If the families' solicitor could demonstrate that the original inquests were inadequate, or that new evidence or witnesses are now available, they could ask for new inquests to be held.

"Access to this material has been instrumental in persuading the attorney general to direct fresh inquests in relation to a number of similar cases," Mr O Muirigh added.

"It is imperative as legal representatives when we are preparing such applications that we establish the flawed nature of the original inquest, but we can't do that, of course, if we don't have access to the original deposition."

Image caption Padraig O Muirigh had what he thought was a routine Freedom of Information request turned down

Attorney General John Larkin has used this power in the past, including a decision to order fresh inquests into the deaths of 10 people shot dead by the army in the Ballymurphy area of west Belfast over three days in August 1971.

For years the public records office had routinely released court papers to solicitors on request, so Mr O Muirigh asked why the policy had changed.

'Obstruct families'

In a letter (dated 13 March 2013), PRONI said it was the result of a meeting at the end of June last year "when an investigator from the PSNI asked under what authority they were releasing copies of court files into the public domain".

"I was very surprised to learn there had been a change of policy," the solicitor said.

"PRONI policy initially was to give free access to the next of kin and their legal representatives to this documentation. The only explanation we have been provided for that shift in policy has been the opposition to disclosure by the HET and PSNI, so effectively the public records office has delegated decision making in these issues to the HET or PSNI. We believe that is unlawful.

"I don't believe it's any accident that we've had this intervention. We have an attorney general at the minute who is prepared to direct fresh inquests where he sees it advisable and I believe this is a very deliberate policy to stymie and to obstruct families who are seeking to persuade the attorney general to go down that road."

The policy was due to be challenged in the courts until the culture minister intervened and over-ruled PRONI's decision. As the Keeper of Records, Caral Ni Chullin is responsible for overseeing its work.

In a letter to the families' solicitor, she said that after taking advice from the attorney general, she had concluded there was no credible or compelling reason for withholding the files, and included copies of the documents requested.

"I don't believe the public records office were in a position to make that decision independently, I think that decision was mine to make," the minister told the BBC.

"I absolutely support the solicitor's argument on behalf of the families. The families did indeed have a right to this information and I believe they should have had the information a long time ago."

A spokesman for the HET said it had not raised any objections to the court papers being released.

Future requests for court papers will be dealt with on a case-by-case basis. The minister says she believes documents should be released, but she is willing to listen to the views and advice of others before making a decision.