Coroner refuses to list Patrick Duffy inquest due to MOD delays
Joint press statement from PFC & Harte Coyle Collins | 07 February 2024
A Coroner examining the death of Patrick Duffy, shot in the back and side 14 times by an undercover army unit on 24th November 1978 at 2 Maureen Avenue, Derry, has told his family that she cannot list the inquest for hearing to complete before the Legacy Act deadline of 1st May 2024.
The family of Mr Duffy have campaigned for justice for their father’s killing for 41 years. The family were granted a fresh inquest by the Attorney General for Northern Ireland on the 22nd of March 2019. Preliminary hearings into the inquest commenced on the 30th of September 2019. There have been 13 hearings in the inquest from 2019 to date. The inquest was substantively opened at Derry Courthouse on the 21st of April 2023 when the court heard evidence from the next of kin and an expert engineer (first instructed directly by the family in 2003).
In a written ruling dated the 26th of January 2024, the Coroner stated that the reason for her inability to hold the inquest was because the MOD claims that it cannot complete the sensitive discovery process before 1st May 2024.
In a written ruling on the 26th of January 2024, Coroner Fiona Bagnall accepted the oral evidence provided by a MOD witness, Lucy Ahad, at a hearing on 16th January 2023 in which she stated that the earliest date that the MOD could provide discovery of sensitive material would be July 2024.
Mr Duffy was shot dead in the course of an operation involving a special military unit (“SMU”). He was killed by an undercover SAS unit (see background information below). The undercover army unit consisted of 5 members of which 2 are now deceased. The surviving 3 members of the unit were interviewed by RUC police at Strand Road Police Station after the shooting. Their weapons were seized and subject to forensic examination.
Lawyers for the family had submitted to the court from September 2023 that with the limited number or army personnel involved in the killing of Mr Duffy, the MOD sensitive disclosure preparation should be prioritised so the inquest could proceed before the current deadline.
The MOD witness, Ms Ahad, who gave evidence by remote link to the Coroner on the 19th January 2024, admitted that she had only been in post for 4 months, and confirmed to the court that the MOD currently only have one expert (referred to as a Subject Matter Expert -SME) dealing with sensitive materials for the Special Military Units (SMU) for all inquests involving such army personnel either listed or being heard before the courts in Northern Ireland.
During the hearing on the 19th of January 2024, counsel for the Mr Duffy’s family, Mr Dessie Hutton K.C. asked the MOD witness what would happen to all the legacy inquests currently running or being prepared for hearing in Northern Ireland if this one Subject Matter Expert was hit by a bus. The witness said she did not like that analogy and refused to answer the question but acknowledged that relying on one person was ‘not ideal.’
Anticipating that the MOD failure to complete this work would obstruct the hearing of this inquest, lawyers for the family lodged a judicial review challenge of the MOD failure in December 2023. On the 19th of January 2024, the family were granted leave by the High Court to challenge the MOD for the failure. Theat full hearing has now been fixed for the 27th of February 2024. The family do not accept that MOD resources or capacity issues are justification to deny a family their statutory right to have the inquest heard..
On the 16th of January 2024 lawyers for the family also lodged an application to the European Court of Human Rights at Strasbourg challenging the provisions of the Legacy Act 2023 and raising the specific concern that the failure of the MOD to complete the disclosure process might result in this inquest being heard before the 1st of May 2024 deadline. Lawyers for the family have also now provided the Strasbourg court with a copy of the Coroner’s written ruling which now confirms their fears raised in their application lodged earlier this month.
In the written ruling issued on the 26th of January the Coroner directed that the MOD report back to her on the status of the sensitive preparation by next week the 19th of February 2024. A further inquest court review will take place week commencing 26th February 2024.
Martina Duffy, Daughter of Patrick Duffy said:
“It seems that the MOD are using every trick to stop our father’s inquest, and now they think they have succeeded. But we have overcome decades of delays and setbacks, and we will continue to fight in the courts here and in Europe. Our father was shot 14 times by the army in that house. He was alone and unarmed. We want to know why.”
Patricia Coyle, solicitor for the family from Harte Coyle Collins, Solicitors & Advocates said;
“Mr Duffy was fatally shot in a single victim incident involving just 5 members of an undercover army unit. He was killed while unarmed by 14 shots to the back and side with 2 of those at close range. A fresh inquest was directed by the AG on 22nd March 2019. The first preliminary hearing took place on 30th September 2019 before the now Lady Chief Justice. At that hearing the now LCJ stated that she understood the family’s concern about getting this inquest on and directed that the MOD move on disclosure. That was over 4 years ago. Since then there have been a further 13 hearings. The inquest was opened by the Coroner and heard evidence at Derry Courthouse on the 21st of April 2023. The Legacy Bill was introduced on the 17th of May 2022, 2 years before the deadline. It is beyond credulity that the MOD have only one person completing this work for all inquests in Northern Ireland when the courts have expanded their resources to conclude those granted. It is insulting, not only to our clients but to the rule of law, that having had 4 years to complete this work, now come to the court to claim they cannot complete it until 2 months after the legacy deadline. ”
Sara Duddy from the Pat Finucane Centre said;
‘This is clearly a case of state agencies bending over backwards to sabotage these inquests. It is clear that the MOD does not want to complete discovery in this case, and it seems they are using the resource issue to try to thwart all inquests concerning the military, as this excuse is churned out on repeat time and time again.
We are now seeing the outworking of the Legacy Act that is having real, devastating effects of families. The Duffy’s have spent over 40 years seeking the truth about the assassination of their father. They will not allow a ‘resource issue’ at the eleventh hour stop them for receiving answers.’
Background to the case
The family of Mr Duffy were granted a fresh inquest by Attorney General on 22nd March 2019. This legacy inquest is one which was earmarked to heard in 2023. It opened on 21st April 2023.
Patrick Duffy was shot dead just after 9pm on the 24th of November 1978 while in 2 Maureen Avenue, Derry by members of the British army. Mr Duffy was 50 years of age at the time of his death. He was married with 6 children, one of whom, Margarita, was sitting in a car outside the house at the time of the shooting with her 7 month old nephew. He died instantly from his injuries. It is believed that the killing was carried out by an undercover SAS unit dressed in civilian clothes who had been secreted in the property prior to the shooting for a number of days.
Pathology evidence at the original inquest, held on the 9th and 10th December 1980, confirmed that Patrick Duffy was shot up to 14 times. The same evidence confirmed that bullets were fired from his left-hand side or behind him into his back but 2 of these shots were fired at close range to the left side of his chest. Mr Duffy was alone and unarmed at the time of the shooting.
The Coroner Mrs Bagnall opened the inquest and heard evidence in Derry Courthouse in April 2023 including expert evidence and evidence from family members. In January 2023, the family provided the Coroner’s Service with physical evidence items including the clothes their father was wearing when he was fatally shot.