The immunity provisions in the Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Act 2023 are incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and should be disapplied, Justice Adrian Colton has ruled.

"I am satisfied that immunity from prosecution provisions under Section 19 of the (Northern Ireland Troubles) Act are in breach of the lead applicant's rights pursuant to Article 2 of the ECHR," Justice Colton told a sitting of the Belfast High Court today, February 28.

“I am also satisfied that they are in breach of Article 3 of the ECHR.

"There is no evidence that the granting of immunity under the Act will in any way contribute to reconciliation in Northern Ireland. Indeed, the evidence is to the contrary.”

However, Justice Colton, who acknowledged he understands the opposition to the new scheme, also concluded that the Independent Commission for Reconciliation and Information Recovery (ICRIR) is capable of carrying out an ECHR-compliant investigation into Troubles-related deaths and offenses.

Responding to the court's ruling, Northern Ireland's Secretary of State Chris Heaton-Harris said on Wednesday: “This is a complex case and is likely to head to further court cases, further action in higher courts.

“I do want to consider this judgment carefully and I want to look at all 200 pages and take the legal advice that he would expect me to take in such circumstances.

“But we do remain committed the Legacy Act, including delivering the ICRIR.”

The controversial  Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Act, which received royal assent in September 2023, will end new Troubles-era cases and inquests and offer conditional amnesty to those accused of killings.

The legislation has the rare distinction of being opposed by all of Northern Ireland’s major political parties. It is also opposed by victims and victims groups, the Irish government, US politicians, Irish American groups, UN experts, and the majority of the UK public.

The day after the bill received royal assent, Amnesty International UK said victims had joined together and submitted legal challenges to the Belfast High Court with an urgent hearing requested.

The Belfast High Court received 20 applications challenging various provisions of the Act. After narrowing the number of applications, four applicants (Martina Dillon, John McEvoy, Lynda McManus, and Brigid Hughes) were condensed into one lead case, while applications from Teresa Jordan, Gemma Gilravy, and Patrick Fitzsimmons were also considered.

Mark Thompson, CEO of the charity Relatives for Justice, welcomed the opinion, saying in part: “The Legacy Acy was deliberately designed to openly continue impunity to protect state perpetrators and agents from investigation and accountability – such as has been witnessed this week in the inquest into the murder of Sean Brown.

“Today’s judgment is vindication of the stance of families and the determination to assert their basic rights to due process and rule of law norms through independent investigations with full accountability.

“These are the basic rights of any functioning democracy, yet the British government are intent on denying families impacted by the conflict these fundamental rights.”

To every single family who opposed this Bill and said that they are #NeverGivingUp - this is your day. You set the standard and ensure that your loved ones will never be forgotten or written off. This is not over, but it is progress. We keep going - united and with purpose

— Relatives 4 Justice #NeverGivingUp (@RelsForJustice) February 28, 2024

Meanwhile, the Irish Government announced in December that it is initiating an inter-State case against the UK under the ECHR regarding the legislation, a move which the British Government "profoundly regrets."