18 April 2012

Two men whose convictions for terrorist offences were quashed after more than 30 years have been wrongly denied compensation, the High Court has heard.

Lawyers for Joseph Fitzpatrick and Terence Shiels, who pleaded guilty as teenagers, argued that Justice Minister David Ford mistakenly decided no miscarriage of justice has been established in their cases.

They are seeking an order compelling the government to make pay-outs.

Should they succeed, it could open the floodgates to a series of similar applications stretching back to the 1970s.

Mr Fitzpatrick, 50, from the Markets area of Belfast, was jailed for five years for membership of Fianna na hÉireann – the IRA’s youth wing – and an arson attack on a motor garage in February 1977.

He was also convicted of involvement in a gun attack on an army patrol the previous December following an alleged admission to acting as a scout for the Provisionals.

In a separate case, Mr Shiels, 49, from the Creggan in Derry, was held on suspicion of involvement in a shooting incident at the city’s Rosemount RUC station in March 1978.

He received a suspended jail sentence based on a written statement in which he too allegedly admitted being a member of na Fianna and possession of a handgun.

Both men were aged 16 when they were arrested and, under the Judges’ Rules which operated at the time, they should have been allowed access to a solicitor and an appropriate adult during interview.

Their convictions were overturned by the Court of Appeal in May 2009 after being referred by the Criminal Cases Review Commission.

With a breach of the Judges’ Rules established, and the only evidence being the teenagers’ admissions, the guilty verdicts were held to be unsafe.

Both men’s applications for compensation were then turned down by the Secretary of State.

Following a landmark Supreme Court ruling that Sinn Féin MLA Raymond McCartney and Derry journalist Eamonn MacDermott should receive compensation after having murder convictions quashed, the Department of Justice agreed to review its position in the Fitzpatrick and Shiels cases.

However, last December the refusal was reaffirmed on the basis that their convictions were not reversed due to any “new or newly discovered fact” showing beyond reasonable doubt a miscarriage of justice.

Seeking to judicially review the decision, Mr Shiels’ barrister, Karen Quinlivan QC, argued that the authorities had got it wrong.

She submitted: “Where it was determined that the confessions were unsafe so as to be either inadmissible or unreliable then the evidence against the applicant was so undermined that no conviction could be possibly based on it, ie there was no other evidence.”

On that basis the case falls within the appropriate miscarriage of justice guidelines, she argued.

She also claimed that the breaches of the Judges’ Rules amounted to a newly discovered fact.

Ms Quinlivan added: “In concluding otherwise it is submitted that the various decisions taken by the relevant ministers to contrary effect were erroneous and unreasonable.”

Judgment in the challenge, being heard by Mr Justice Treacy, is expected to be reserved.