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EDITIONS
Friday, 26 July, 2002, 17:20 GMT 18:20 UK
'Historic action' by Omagh families
Bob Geldof and Barry McGuigan supported campaign
Omagh families received high profile support

In the majority of serious civil claims, the action is defended and both parties - plaintiff and defendant - appear in court represented by lawyers.

But the historic action launched by the families of the Omagh bomb will almost certainly unfold in a different way, with the five men named in the writ lodged in Belfast last summer both unrepresented and absent from the proceedings.

That is not only because three of the five are in prison, but it seems inconceivable that the Real IRA will instruct lawyers to rebut the claim.

But ignoring the process will not prevent the case for the plaintiffs being heard by the court and, if established - to a lower standard of proof than applies in a criminal trial - the financial cost to the defendants could be crippling.

Reluctance

The sixth defendant is the Real IRA itself, though whether it has identifiable assets which can be seized, should the claim be successful, is a moot point.

An intriguing aspect of the case is what kind of witness evidence will be called to support the claim.

Since the hearsay rules are more relaxed than in a criminal trial, it would be natural for the plaintiff's lawyers to wish to call police officers from both sides of the border.

However, the criminal investigation into the bombing is still, officially, going on, and there may be great reluctance in official quarters to sanction such co-operation.

An acrimonious legal tussle cannot be ruled out - especially because the families would argue that the Panorama programme which named several men as being responsible for the bomb, could not have been made without the co-operation of members of the Garda and the then RUC.

On the British mainland, frustration with police investigations in some high-profile cases - the Stephen Lawrence murder is one - has led to the issuing of a private prosecution to bring the alleged perpetrators of a crime to court.

Symbolic

It is not clear whether the Omagh families considered this path but, as a strategy, it tends to be largely symbolic and the prosecution, if weak, can be taken over and discontinued at any time by the Director of Public Prosecutions.

A successful civil claim for damages not only represents a public "naming and shaming" but, increasingly, a potent blow against an individual's livelihood.

As one of the lawyers in the Omagh case has said: "The defendants are terrified that, if we win, we can take their houses off them."

But that may still be a long way off.

Click here for the full special report

Ombudsman report

Bomb trial verdict

Archive - the blast:

PANORAMA
See also:

26 Jul 02 | N Ireland
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