Northern Ireland

Judge criticises 'systemic' underfunding of Police Ombudsman

Police Ombudsman
Image caption The judge said 'systemic and persistent' underfunding was 'disabling' the Police Ombudsman

Systemic government underfunding is impeding attempts to investigate complaints against police in a reasonable time, a judge has ruled.

He also said the Justice Department acted unlawfully by failing to provide sufficient resources to examine alleged flaws in a murder investigation.

It followed a legal challenge by the family of murder victim Patrick Murphy.

They were told the Police Ombudsman's inquiry was not expected to be completed until 2025.

Mr Murphy was shot dead on his 63rd birthday as he served customers at his grocer's shop on Belfast's Mount Merrion Avenue in November 1982.

Sectarian killing

No-one has ever been convicted for the sectarian killing, believed to have been carried out by the UVF.

The victim's family lodged a complaint with the Police Ombudsman about how the murder investigation was handled in 2004, and again in 2009.

They raised concerns about alleged failings and missed opportunities in the course of the investigation.

But, in 2014, they were told that staffing levels within the unit of the Ombudsman's office dealing with their case had been reduced by 25%.

Budgetary cuts

With budgetary cuts also imposed, the family was informed that the relevant programme of investigations could not be completed before 2025.

Mr Murphy's daughter, Patricia Bell, launched judicial review proceedings against the Ombudsman and the Department of Justice over the investigative delays.

Counsel for the Ombudsman's Office conceded it was in breach of its statutory duty to investigate within a reasonable time.

Ms Bell's lawyers described the Ombudsman, Dr Michael Maguire, and his team as "blameless".

Instead, they argued that the Justice Department was frustrating an obligation imposed on it by Parliament to allocate sufficient funding.

Delivering judgment, High Court judge Mr Justice Maguire backed the family's case.

'Failure of government'

"The court has no difficulty in concluding that, on the balance of probability, the source of the problem besetting the Police Ombudsman's office lies with the failure of government, most directly the Department of Justice, to provide adequate resources to the Police Ombudsman," he said.

It would be unlikely for Parliament to have intended the funding authority to have put the watchdog in a position of acting unlawfully, the judge pointed out.

Ruling that the situation was unreasonable, he said: "The present case is one of systemic and persistent underfunding which is disabling the Police Ombudsman, not in one but in a range of cases, and not in one lone period but over a period now of years, from being able to meet a not particularly demanding standard, that of carrying out its investigation into a public complaint against the police within a reasonable time."