On the Runs: Terms of judge-led inquiry 'limited'

Lady Justice Hallett Dame Heather Carol Hallett has agreed to the clarified terms of reference

A judge appointed to head an inquiry into a scheme that led to letters being sent to more than 190 republican On the Runs will not be required to examine each individual case in detail.

Lady Justice Hallett will also not have to consider whether the letters were lawful.

The review was commissioned in the wake of the collapse of John Downey's trial.

He was suspected of the 1982 IRA murder of four soldiers in Hyde Park and had received one of the letters.

The letters have been variously described as get out of jail free cards, worthless pieces of paper, and legally binding guarantees that the recipients will not be prosecuted.

Unionists have welcomed the inquiry, with some suggesting that it would result in the grounds for sending each letter being re-examined, and some being rescinded.

But the scope of the review appears much more limited, according to correspondence between the director general of the Northern Ireland Office (NIO), Julian King, and the Lord Chief Justice for England and Wales, Lord Thomas.

'Sample of cases'

Letters between the pair on the issue have been released to the media.

In a letter dated 10 March, Mr King told Lord Thomas that, to assist the judge, "it might be helpful to set out more fully matters which are, and are not, intended to be within the ambit of the review".

Mr King told Lord Thomas it is envisaged that in order to produce a public account of the scheme, the judge "will not need to examine the detail of every individual case dealt with under the scheme, but will look at a sample of cases from across the scheme".

Who are the On The Runs?

Agreement cover

Anyone already convicted of paramilitary crimes became eligible for early release under the terms of the Northern Ireland Good Friday agreement of 1998.

The agreement did not cover:

  • Anyone suspected of, but not charged with, paramilitary offences committed before the Good Friday Agreement.
  • Those who had been charged with offences but who had escaped.
  • Those who had been convicted of offences but who escaped.

The letter also stated that while the judge may choose to look at the grounds on which the police and prosecutors reached the decisions they did, and the general approach they used, she "will not need to reinvestigate every case or make a fresh decision about whether a recipient of a letter should or should not have been pursued for arrest and prosecution".

Even if the judge does decide to consider police or prosecution decisions in this way, Mr King reinforced the point that she "will not examine the detail of every individual case dealt with under the scheme, but will look at a sample of cases".

Prime Minister David Cameron ordered the inquiry last month after Northern Ireland's First Minister, Peter Robinson, had threatened to resign over the issue of On the Runs.

Mr Robinson's threat came after a judge ruled that Donegal man Mr Downey would not stand trial for the Hyde Park bombing even though he had mistakenly been sent a letter telling him he was not wanted by police in the UK.

At the time, he was actually listed on the national police computer as wanted for questioning about the attack.

'Errors'

Part of Lady Hallett's review will be to examine whether other letters have been sent in error, or contained factual inaccuracies.

However, Mr King made it clear that this aspect of the review will also be limited.

His letter said: "The reviewer should investigate and form a view on whether any of the letters issued under the scheme contained errors. In this context 'errors' means the possibility that the letter contained inaccurate or misleading information, as in the Downey case.

Inquiry terms of reference

Downing Street said the terms of reference of the judicial inquiry are to produce a full public account of the operation and extent of the scheme for On the Runs to determine whether any letters contained errors.

The judge will be able to seek to interview anyone, but will not be able to compel witnesses to attend. Evidence will not be given in public.

It will report by the end of May and will be able to make recommendations.

The decision not to appeal the Downey case will not be altered by this inquiry.

"To investigate and form a view in respect of errors, the reviewer will not be required to examine the detail of every individual case dealt with under the scheme, but on the basis of the information obtained from such checks as are considered necessary by the reviewer, and from examination of the detail of any case produced by such checks, will report to the extent possible on whether there are errors in any of the letters sent."

The letter said the review should examine and report on how any errors came to be made, including any systemic failings within the operation of the administrative scheme.

It said any further errors should be identified as quickly as possible, so that the NIO can take steps to correct them.

However, while it is open to the judge to consider the general lawfulness and/or legal effect of the scheme and the letters sent under it, the letter said Lady Hallett "is not expected to reach a conclusion on the specific legal effect of individual letters, or any action taken or not taken as a result of the letter being sent".

In a response sent two days later, Lord Thomas said Lady Hallett has agreed to conduct the review "on the basis of the terms of reference as announced by the prime minister and the clarification of those terms of reference provided in your letter".

There is also a clear suggestion that the review may not be completed by the end of May, as initially announced and agreed between the government and Mr Robinson.

Lord Thomas said the judge will make "every effort" to complete the review by the end of May, but added that "in any event, she further agrees that she will report to whatever extent possible and bring the review to a conclusion by the end of June".

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