Northern Ireland’s highest court has said Stormont ministers have a legal duty to fund a pension for badly-injured conflict victims.
Administrations in London and Belfast are in dispute over who will pay the estimated £800 million cost of financial support for those most badly-injured during the decades of violence.
Brian Turley, who suffered mental health problems due to British Army interrogation, brought the case at Belfast’s Royal Courts of Justice.
There has been past political disagreement over whether anyone convicted of inflicting serious harm during the Troubles should qualify for payments and over who should fund the scheme.
BREAKING: The Court of Appeal finds that the Executive Office is under a legal duty to make the payments for the Legacy Victims’ Pensions. The case was taken by Brian Turley one of the Hooded Men who was represented by @darraghmackin , with @judebunting and Barry Macdonald QC, SC
— Phoenix Law Belfast (@PhoenixLawHR) February 9, 2021
A statement on behalf of the Court of Appeal said: “The court declared that there is a legal duty on the Executive Office to fund victims’ payments and lump sums under the 2020 (Victim Payment) Regulations so that the (Victims Payments) Board can make the necessary payments in accordance with Regulation 23.
“It expressed no view on the dispute between the Northern Ireland Executive and the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) on the source of the funding.
“The court adjourned the appeal for four weeks to allow the parties to find an agreed solution.”
The scheme covers violence related to the Troubles between 1966 and 2010.
People would receive between £2,000 and £10,000 a year for the rest of their lives.
It is a recognition that criminal injuries awards from decades ago were largely inadequate.
Mr Turley is one of those known as the “Hooded Men” who were arrested and interrogated by the Army in 1971.
He said: “Today’s judgment confirms that there is no justifiable reason for delaying the payments to victims.
“The need to keep taking cases to court to obtain what I am entitled to is another form of torture.
“I welcome the Lord Chief Justice’s comments that no further delay will be tolerated and look forward to seeing this matter resolved before March 5.”
The allocation within next year’s draft budget for the Executive Office to cover implementation costs does not stretch to the actual payments, a senior civil servant told a Stormont committee recently.
The Victims’ Payment Scheme was given the green light at Westminster last year, and Stormont finance minister Conor Murphy said it should be paid for by London.
Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis believes Stormont is funded to deliver commitments including this scheme.
The UK Government has argued that significant extra funds have been granted since devolution was restored and it is for local ministers to decide how best to divide it up and which priorities to meet.
The pension scheme was due to open for applications last year but was delayed due to a failure by the Executive Office, which is shared by First Minister Arlene Foster and deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill, to nominate a Stormont department to take responsibility for it.
Darragh Mackin of Phoenix Law, solicitor for Mr Turley, said: “Today’s Judgment by the Court of Appeal makes it unequivocally clear that there is, and has always been, a legal duty on the Executive Office to make the payments necessary for the purposes of the legacy victims’ pensions.
“Our client, who is a victim of state-sponsored torture, has waited long enough for the pension to which he is legally entitled.
“Whilst it is regrettable that he has had to pursue litigation of this kind to obtain the victim’s pension, this case again epitomises the importance of judicial review and access to justice in cases of this kind, when there are victims’ fundamental rights at stake.”
Mrs Foster said the ruling would be reassuring for innocent victims.
“It restates the law and emphasises that the Northern Ireland Executive must ensure payments are made to victims.
It is disappointing that Sinn Fein ministers blocked and delayed this scheme.”
She said she looked forward to payments being made.
“Whilst the payments will be made from the Northern Ireland Executive, there is a strong argument that the Government should be increasing the Northern Ireland budget accordingly to fund the pension.
“After all, some of the eligible claimants live outside Northern Ireland.
“I have been pressing this with the Government and we need to see action.”