Court Rules Against Granting Immunity for Violence in Northern Ireland’s ‘Troubles’

A Belfast court ruled on Wednesday that a new British law granting people immunity from prosecution for crimes committed during Northern Ireland’s bloody sectarian conflict — known as the Troubles — would be a breach of human rights.

The British government introduced the legislation, known as the Legacy Act, last year, aiming to “promote reconciliation” in the region, despite opposition from every political party there. The law would halt all inquests, civil actions and cold-case reviews of Troubles-related cases that have not been resolved by May 1, and redirect them to an independent commission.

Crucially, the law also includes provisions for conditional amnesty for people suspected of crimes committed during the Troubles, including serious offenses.

Wednesday’s decision, by the High Court in Belfast, was the result of a judicial review that it carried out after victims and families affected by the Troubles brought the issue to the court. Judge Adrian Colton, who delivered the ruling, said he believed that granting immunity from prosecution under the act would breach the European Convention on Human Rights.

Although the complex ruling is likely not to affect Britain’s ability to carry out parts of the law as soon as May 1, legal experts say it is a major blow to the country’s already fragile Conservative government, whose support has been falling in the polls before an election that will be held within the next year.

The Troubles, the decades of sectarian conflict between Catholic and Protestant communities that enveloped Northern Ireland from 1968 until 1998, left some 3,600 people dead in bombings and shootings until the Good Friday peace agreement ended the violence.

The conflict still casts a long shadow over Northern Ireland despite recent decades of peace, with many family members of victims still seeking justice, and many perpetrators of violence never having been held accountable. But there has long been a fragmented approach to addressing the unlawful killings, with different legal avenues, inquests and investigations headed up by different bodies.

The new legislation has alarmed rights groups and was widely criticized by the public in Northern Ireland, which is part of Britain, and denounced by the government of the neighboring Republic of Ireland.

There were concerns that the act could derail years of carefully managed peace building and diplomacy between Britain and Ireland at a particularly fraught time when Brexit has added tension to their relationship.

The law also set off several legal battles, including the judicial review. In December, Ireland announced that it would challenge Britain over the act at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France. The court is a tribunal of the Council of Europe, of which both Ireland and Britain are members.

The British government is likely to appeal Wednesday’s ruling to the Court of Appeal for Northern Ireland and possibly to Britain’s Supreme Court, lawyers involved in other cases related to the legislation said.

Christopher Stanley, a lawyer with KRW Law, one of the firms acting on behalf of relatives of victims of the conflict, welcomed the judgment.

“Politically this is becoming an increasingly problematic issue for the British government in an election year,” Mr. Stanley said. “This is a bad day for the British government. It is a day of some respite for relatives of victims and survivors of violent conflict.”

But he also said it was “not a victory for families, as the British government will challenge the findings.”

Others seized on the ruling to urge Britain’s government to rethink the Legacy Act.

“This morning’s High Court ruling confirms what every fair observer knows, that the government’s legacy legislation is not compatible with human rights,” said Claire Hanna, a member of Parliament representing South Belfast. “It puts the needs of perpetrators ahead of the needs of victims, and it is not supported by any party in Northern Ireland or across the island of Ireland.”

But the government has vowed to press ahead with the law, said Christopher Heaton-Harris, the secretary of state for Northern Ireland. “We remain committed to implementing the Legacy Act,” he said.