An appeal against the six-and-a-half-year prison term imposed on a loyalist paramilitary chief turned state informer who admitted five murders can proceed, senior judges ruled on Friday.
Gary Haggarty’s lawyers claimed the attempt to secure a longer sentence should be halted because the Public Prosecution Service missed a deadline.
Papers were submitted 25 minutes after the close of court business at the end of a 28-day limit for lodging an appeal, they argued.
But Lord Chief Justice Sir Declan held that “fortunately or otherwise” someone appeared to take the documents.
He confirmed: “We have concluded that the reference has been delivered in time and has been served in accordance with the statute and rules on time.”
The case will now proceed to a full hearing at the Court of Appeal in May.
Prosecutors are challenging the sentence handed down to Haggarty on the basis that it was unduly lenient.
The 45-year-old former commander of an Ulster Volunteer Force unit in north Belfast was jailed earlier this year after confessing to hundreds of terrorist offences.
His catalogue of paramilitary crime extended over 16 years, from 1991 to 2007, and included the following murders:
:: Sean McParland, 55, a father of four from south Belfast gunned down while babysitting his grandchildren at a house in Skegoniel Avenue, Belfast in February 1994.
:: Catholic workmen Eamon Fox, 44, and Gary Convie, 24, shot dead close to a building site on Belfast’s North Queen Street in May 1994.
:: Sean McDermott, a 37-year-old Catholic shot found shot dead in his car near Antrim in August 1994.
:: John Harbinson, murdered after being handcuffed and beaten by a UVF gang on the Mount Vernon estate in north Belfast in May 1997.
He also admitted five attempted murders, including against police officers; multiple counts of conspiracy to murder; directing terrorism; and membership of a proscribed organisation.
Haggarty pleaded guilty as part of a controversial state deal that offered a reduced sentence in return for providing evidence on other terror suspects.
As a consequence his prison term was slashed from 35 years to six-and-a-half years due to the assistance provided to police.
Under the terms of the agreement signed back in 2010 he supplied information on scores of loyalist killings and attempted murders.
But only one man is to be prosecuted over a murder using his evidence.
Now the PPS is seeking to have his sentence reviewed and increased.
Defence lawyers claim that even if the appeal succeeds, Haggarty will not serve any longer behind bars because the murders were committed before the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.
However, they mounted a preliminary legal bid to have the case stopped by arguing that papers were lodged after the deadline expired.
Martin O’Rourke QC, for Haggarty, contended: “It would be totally arbitrary if the appellant could avail of a situation where there happened to be someone in the office after this hour.”
Counsel representing the PPS, Tony McGleenan QC, insisted there had been compliance with the 28-day rule.
“They were left in to the office, so the procedural and temporal requirements have all been met,” he said.
Sir Declan, sitting with Lord Justices Stephens and Deeny, agreed that the time-limit was not breached.
Deciding the appeal can proceed, he said: “The point in this case, fortunately or otherwise, is that somebody appeared at the counter and took the documents.”