Former judge Anthony Hart chairs NI child abuse inquiry

Retired High Court judge Sir Anthony Hart is to chair the NI Executive’s inquiry into institutional child abuse.

The announcement was made at Parliament Buildings, Stormont, following an executive meeting.

In September 2011, the executive confirmed it would set up an inquiry to examine allegations of abuse at children’s homes and care institutions.

Sir Anthony will be assisted by four people who will run a confidential forum for victims.

Northern Ireland First Minister Peter Robinson said: “We are very pleased that Sir Anthony Hart has agreed to lead this inquiry and we know that he will be unflinching in his pursuit of the truth and scrupulous in his analysis of the evidence.”

The inquiry is expected to begin its work in the autumn and will report in approximately three years’ time.

Its findings and recommendations will then be considered by ministers who will decide the way forward.

The four people on the panel are Beverley Clarke, Norah Gibbons, Dave Marshall and Tom Shaw. Each has significant experience of investigating child abuse.

Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness said the inquiry would include a confidential “acknowledgement forum” in which victims and survivors could recount their childhood experiences in institutions.

“They (the panel) will listen to and acknowledge the testimony of victims and their work will result in a report about the children’s experiences.”

“We will introduce legislation shortly to ensure that the inquiry has the powers, flexibility and protections it needs to complete its work.”

His appointment has been welcomed by Margaret McGuckin who campaigns on behalf of abuse victims.

“I’m delighted at the high calibre of this judge and I believe he’s ready to come on board here and do his best,” she said.

“I understand he has a lot of integrity and we’ve welcomed him as chairman.”

Victims of abuse have been campaigning for an independent inquiry with the power to compel witnesses to attend for several years.

Thousands of people signed the Justice for the Victims of Institutional Abuse in Northern Ireland petition, which led to MLAs backing a motion calling for an assessment of the scale of abuse.

The organisations who ran the institutions will face pressure to explain the treatment of children over the course of more than 50 years. They include Catholic religious orders, state and voluntary groups.

The inquiry follows lengthy judicial examinations of horrifying tales of abuse in the Republic of Ireland. The results are contained in the Ferns, Murphy and Ryan Reports.

In-depth knowledge

Sir Anthony Hart was called to the Northern Ireland Bar in 1969 and to the Bar of England and Wales in 1975.

He was appointed a Queen’s Counsel in 1983 and a County Court judge in 1985. He was Recorder of Londonderry 1985-90, and of Belfast 1997-2005, and was the first person to be appointed as Presiding Judge of the County Courts in Northern Ireland in 2002.

In January 2005 he was promoted to be a High Court judge, and until his retirement in January 2012, he was responsible to the Lord Chief Justice for the pre-trial case management of all the Crown Court trials conducted by High Court judges. He presided over many criminal trials.

The panel of four who will assist him have in-depth knowledge and experience.

Ms Clarke has wide experience of social work and child care, working in England and Canada. She is an independent expert witness and has worked for the Ministry of Justice and the Home Office.

Ms Gibbons is director of advocacy in Barnardo’s Ireland. She was also a commissioner for the Ryan Inquiry into historical institutional abuse in Ireland.

Mr Marshall is a consultant in the field of child safeguarding, investigation and management. For nine years, he was detective chief inspector and head of the Metropolitan Police Child Abuse Investigation Command’s Major Investigation Team.

Mr Shaw was invited by Scottish ministers to review the regulatory framework in Scotland designed to ensure the welfare needs and rights of children in residential institutions from 1945-95.

He chaired ‘Time to be Heard’, a pilot acknowledgement forum for those who had experienced abuse in residential children’s institutions in Scotland.