Carál Ní Chuilín overturns PRONI archive refusal

The minister responsible for Northern Ireland's public documents archive has overturned a decision not to release court documents.

A solicitor for the families of two people killed during the Troubles made a Freedom of Information request for access to inquest records.

The Public Record Office refused, saying it was not in the public interest to release the information.

That decision has been overturned by the Culture Minister Carál Ní Chuilín.

Ms Ní Chuilín is responsible for overseeing the work of PRONI.

The files held by the archive include documents from dozens of inquests into controversial killings.

Analysis

Millions of documents covering hundreds of years of history lie within the vaults of the public record 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.

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The solicitor was seeking information about the deaths of Gabriel Higgins, 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".

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 said inquests are public hearings held to determine the cause and circumstances of deaths.

In a letter to the families' solicitor, Ms Ní Chuilín 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 record 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.

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