European Court of Human Rights Press Release in the case Finucane v. the United Kingdom

01 July 2003

Press release issued by the Registrar

CHAMBER JUDGMENT IN THE CASE OF FINUCANE v. THE UNITED KINGDOM

The European Court of Human Rights has today notified in writing a judgment  in the case of Finucane v. the United Kingdom (application no. 29178/95). The Court held unanimously that there had been a violation of Article 2 (inadequate investigation into circumstances of death) of the European Convention on Human Rights.

(The judgment is available only in English.)

1. Principal facts

Geraldine Finucane, an Irish national, was born in 1950 and lives in Belfast, Northern Ireland. On 12 February 1989 her husband, solicitor Patrick Finucane, was shot dead in front of her and their three children by two masked men who broke into their home. Responsibility was claimed by an illegal paramilitary group, the Ulster Freedom Fighters ("UFF"). Mr Finucane had represented clients from both sides of the conflict in Northern Ireland and had been involved in some high-profile cases arising out of that conflict. According to Mrs Finucane, her husband had received death threats, via his clients, from officers of the Royal Ulster Constabulary ("RUC"). After the shooting the RUC began an investigation and many suspected members of the UFF were detained and interviewed. A further suspect, William Stobie, was arrested and questioned from 13 to 20 September 1990, but on 16 January 1991 it was decided that there was insufficient evidence to prosecute him in relation to the Finucane case. At the inquest on 6 September 1990 into Mr Finucane's death, evidence was given by the detective superintendent in charge of the investigation that the pistol used to shoot the victim had been stolen from army barracks in August 1987 by a member of the Ulster Defence Regiment (a locally recruited regiment of the British army) and had found its way into the hands of three members of the UFF. Police were satisfied, however, that they had not been in possession of the weapon at the time of Mr Finucane's murder.

On 14 September 1989 the Chief Constable of the RUC had appointed John Stevens, a senior police officer from England, to investigate allegations of collusion between members of security forces and loyalist paramilitaries. No charges were laid against members of the RUC following the Stevens inquiry, but Brian Nelson, who had worked as an undercover agent providing information to British military intelligence and had become the chief intelligence officer of the Ulster Defence Association (an illegal paramilitary group which directed the activities of the UFF), was arrested. At his trial the British authorities claimed that he had got out of hand and had become personally involved in loyalist murder plots. He was sentenced to 10 years' imprisonment. In prison he allegedly admitted that he had targeted Mr Finucane and, in his capacity as double agent, had informed British Army handlers of this at the time. He had also allegedly passed a photo of Mr Finucane to the UDA before he was killed. Those allegations were transmitted in a TV programme on 8 June 1992. Following the programme, Mr Stevens was appointed to conduct a second inquiry. According to the Government, he inquired into the alleged involvement of Mr Nelson and members of the Army in Mr Finucane's death. Mrs Finucane alleged that no one contacted her or her lawyers regarding the death threats she claimed were made prior to her husband's murder.

On 17 February 1995 the Director of Public Prosecutions ("DPP") issued a direction of "no prosecution" to the Chief Constable of the RUC on the ground that there was insufficient evidence to prosecute anyone. In 1999 Mr Stevens was appointed to conduct an independent investigation into Mr Finucane's murder. On 17 April 2003 he submitted his report to the DPP. An overview of that report was made public. It indicated that there had been collusion and that the murder could have been prevented. In the meantime Mr Stobie had been charged with Mr Finucane's murder but found not guilty for lack of evidence. Mr Stobie was shot dead on 12 December 2001 by gunmen shortly after receiving threats from loyalist paramilitaries.

 

2. Procedure and composition of the Court

The application was lodged with the European Commission of Human Rights on 5 July 1994 and transmitted to the Court on 1 November 1998. It was declared admissible on 2 July 2002.

Judgment was given by a Chamber of 7 judges, composed as follows:

Matti Pellonpää (Finnish), President,
Nicolas Bratza (British),
Elisabeth Palm (Swedish),
Marc Fischbach (Luxemburger),
Josep Casadevall (Andorran),
Stanislav Pavlovschi (Moldovan),
Javier Borrego Borrego (Spanish), judges,

and also Michael O'BoyleSection Registrar.

 

3. Summary of the judgment

Complaint

The applicant complained, under Article 2 of the Convention, that there had been no effective investigation into her husband's death, which had occurred in circumstances giving rise to suspicions of collusion by the security forces with his killers.

Decision of the Court

Article 2

The police investigation into the murder had been started immediately and had involved the necessary steps to secure evidence. However, it had been conducted by officers who were part of the police force suspected by the applicant of making death threats against her husband. There had therefore been a lack of independence, which raised serious doubts as to the thoroughness or effectiveness with which the possibility of collusion had been pursued.

The inquest had not involved any inquiry into the allegations of collusion and the applicant had been refused permission to make a statement about the alleged threats to her husband. The inquest had therefore failed to address serious and legitimate concerns and could not be regarded as having constituted an effective investigation.

Of the three inquiries, it was not apparent that the first two had been concerned with investigating the death of the applicant's husband with a view to bringing a prosecution and, in any event, the reports had not been made public, so the necessary elements of public scrutiny and involvement of the family were missing. While the third inquiry was specifically concerned with the murder, the Government admitted that, taking place some 10 years after the event, it could not be regarded as having been carried out promptly and expeditiously. Moreover, it was not apparent to what extent the report itself would be made public.

The Director of Public Prosecutions was not required to give reasons for his decisions not to prosecute and there was no possibility in Northern Ireland to challenge such decisions by way of judicial review. No reasons had been given for the decisions not to prosecute in the present case and no information had been provided to reassure the applicant and the public that the rule of law had been respected.

In conclusion, there had been a failure to provide a prompt and effective investigation into the allegations of collusion by security personnel.

The Court did not consider it appropriate to indicate that the Government should hold a fresh investigation into Mr Finucane's death. It could not be assumed in cases such as this that a future investigation could usefully be carried out or provide any redress, either to the victim's family or in terms of providing transparency and accountability to the wider public. The lapse of time and its effect on evidence and the availability of witnesses could inevitably render such an investigation unsatisfactory or inconclusive. It rather fell to the Committee of Ministers to address the issue as to what might practicably be required in terms of compliance in each case. The Court awarded Mrs Finucane EUR 43,000 for costs and expenses.

Registry of the European Court of Human Rights
F - 67075 Strasbourg Cedex
Contacts: Roderick Liddell (telephone: +00 33 (0)3 88 41 24 92)
Joanna Reynell (telephone: +00 33 (0)3 90 21 42 15)
Stéphanie Klein (telephone: +00 33 (0)3 88 41 21 54)
Fax: +00 33 (0)3 88 41 27 91

The European Court of Human Rights was set up in Strasbourg in 1959 to deal with alleged violations of the 1950 European Convention on Human Rights. On 1 November 1998 a full-time Court was established, replacing the original two-tier system of a part-time Commission and Court.

 

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  • 1. Under Article 43 of the European Convention on Human Rights, within three months from the date of a Chamber judgment, any party to the case may, in exceptional cases, request that the case be referred to the 17-member Grand Chamber of the Court. In that event, a panel of five judges considers whether the case raises a serious question affecting the interpretation or application of the Convention or its Protocols, or a serious issue of general importance, in which case the Grand Chamber will deliver a final judgment. If no such question or issue arises, the panel will reject the request, at which point the judgment becomes final. Otherwise Chamber judgments become final on the expiry of the three-month period or earlier if the parties declare that they do not intend to make a request to refer.