Following our previous commentary in respect of the unsuccessful attempt to suspend the Muckamore Abbey Hospital Inquiry via Judicial Review proceedings, Mr Justice Colton’s decision was appealed to the Northern Ireland Court of Appeal.
By way of summary, the applicant (now the appellant) who is the subject of criminal proceedings in connection with their time as a staff member of Muckamore Abbey Hospital, sought to have the Muckamore Abbey Hospital Public Inquiry suspended on the basis that their Article 6 ECHR right to a fair trial had been breached. An application for Judicial Review was brought challenging the Minister for Health’s decision not to suspend the Inquiry whilst criminal proceedings were ongoing in parallel.
Mr Justice Colton dismissed that argument on the basis that the Court was being asked to speculate on whether the applicant’s right to a fair trial would be breached in the future as no trial date had been set or jury empanelled. He stated that fairness of a criminal trial can only be judged at the time and by the trial judge. In addition, Mr Justice Colton stated sufficient mechanisms had been implemented by the Chair of the Inquiry to ensure anonymity. The applicant also argued unsuccessfully that the Minister did not apply the correct test in reaching his decision.
The grounds of appeal were as follows: –
- The Judge erred in concluding the Minister applied the correct test.
- The Judge was mistaken to hold that any suspension of the Inquiry must be necessary before it may be imposed.
- The Judge was mistaken in failing to hold that the concept of assessed necessity applied only to the duration of any suspension.
- The Judge’s assessment of discretion was incorrect when interpreting the Inquiries Act 2005.
The Court of Appeal panel, being Keegan LCJ, Treacy LJ and Horner LJ were not concerned with the decision to proceed with an inquiry in the midst of criminal proceedings, but the question before the Court was whether it should now be suspended given ongoing criminal proceedings which will affect the appellant and others.
It was held that whilst the Minister does have power to suspend the Inquiry, that power is limited to power to suspend for such time that it appears to him to be necessary to allow for the determination of criminal proceedings. If it does not appear to be necessary to allow for the determination of criminal proceedings, then the Minister does not have power to suspend and the issue of time period does not arise. The panel reiterated that the Minister had applied the correct test and sufficient reasons were given by the Minister for his decision.
Finally, whilst the panel acknowledged that there is a delicate equilibrium to a public inquiry progressing in parallel to criminal charges, this is something that must be managed by the Inquiry Chair and reviewed on an ongoing basis.
O’Reilly Stewart welcomes this decision by the Northern Ireland Court of Appeal on behalf of our clients associated with the Muckamore Abbey Hospital Inquiry which continues to run its course.
12 October 2022