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Last updated: Sunday, 21 November 2004
The single human body is a relatively frail organism of flesh, blood and bone. It is possible to sustain harm either accidentally, or from deliberate sources. In the latter case, one of our basic protections is the force of law and order, upon which we rely if we are able to make a complaint against the perpetrator(s). If, however, unexpected or unexplained mortal harm befalls a person, then that body is no longer able to formulate a complaint, nor to push it through to conclusion. In this case we must rely upon others still living to determine whether or not any complaint is applicable, and to formulate it appropriately for said forces of law and order to deal with. This is achieved by the legal mechanism of a full and formal Coroner's Inquest.
Thus the frail human organism is able to walk freely wherever entitled, content in the knowledge that anyone who may consider harming them also has to consider that they (as the perpetrator) will not, necessarily, go unpunished even if fatal harm is inflicted. No-one (it is assumed) would state categorically that an inquest mechanism would always be 100% reliable in every circumstance, nevertheless it must surely be true that the stringent standards applied are the best that are humanly achievable.
What, however, is the situation where the strength of a Coroner's Inquest is considerably diminished? Is it not true to say that the standards are no longer the 'best that are humanly achievable'? Why should there be cases where the stringency of a Coroner's Inquest are applied, whereas there are others to which less stringent standards are applied? Why should the unexpected termination of some human lives be (in effect) less important than the unexpected termination of others?
There are a least two issues here: 'the right to life', and 'equality of all lives'.
There are, however, circumstances where 'the right to life' and 'equality of all lives' are maintained concurrent with standards that are not as individually stringent as a Coroner's Inquest. This is where the stringency is applied as a whole, in the case of multiple fatalities for the exact same basic reasons. An example of this would be a plane crash, where a number of people meet their deaths for the same reason i.e. they were passengers in a plane that crashed. In such a case it is reasonable to say that stringent standards need not be applied to determine each individual death, provided that stringency were applied to determine the causes for the crash itself (as opposed to the causes for each individual death).
In the example quoted above (the crash of an aeroplane) it would be a duplication of effort to engage a Coroner's Inquest for each individual. The same evidence would be provided, and the same verdict reached in each case. Consequent to this it can reasonably argued that, rather than holding individual inquests, an overall Judge's Inquiry is more appropriate, in order to determine the causes for the crash itself. In this case the ramifications for the bereaved are served, as is duty to the deceased.
Provision for this circumstance was enacted by Parliament in 1999 via the Access To Justice Act, which placed amendments into the Coroner's Act 1988 supporting the deferment (subsuming) of a Coroner's Inquest to that of a Judge's Inquiry.
The submission herein is that this amendment is all well and good in the context of the example quoted, and also in other examples for which it has been invoked, i.e. the Harold Shipman Inquiry, the sinking of the Gaul, the Ladbroke Grove rail disaster, etc. The submission herein continues by, however, questioning the validity of invoking this amendment in the case of a single death, as was done in the case of Dr. David Kelly the microbiologist and Government consultant.
In a nutshell what is being questioned here is whether Lord Hutton's Inquiry - which did not have the power of subpoena, ran without the inalienable power to cross-examine, and in which witness statements were not taken under oath - was a reasonable substitute for a full and formal Coroner's Inquest that has all of these powers.
In this case was Dr. Kelly's 'right to life' and 'equality of all lives' maintained by our judicial process?
A possible answer to that final question could be gained by closely scrutinising the evidence that was made public by the Hutton Inquiry. The conclusion of a close scrutiny reveals a number of unexplained evidential discrepancies between the statements of witnesses, which may or may not be significant, and it also reveals that Lord Hutton announced his overall conclusion (suicide) in his opening statement i.e. before any public evidence was provided. Before any witnesses made any verbal statements.
It further reveals that Lord Hutton's proposed method for resolving discrepancies (a period of adjournment for the purposes of doing so) failed to catch the most glaring of them, by virtue of unfortunate timing. (The discrepancies appeared after the period of adjournment).
This submission therefore concludes with the questions: Is it not true that a Coroner would reach a verdict after all evidence has been heard, and after all cross-examined discrepancies had been (as far as possible) reconciled? Is it therefore valid to accept that a Coroner (in conjunction with a Lord Chancellor) may subsume an inquest (under Section 17A of the now amended Coroner's Act 1988) to the less-stringent methods of a Judge's Inquiry, in the case of a single death?
The ramifications of accepting what has happened could, possibly, be far-reaching. Dr. David Kelly was (at that time) headline news. He could be regarded as being 'prominent' at that time. When it became known that he had died, the Hutton Inquiry was hastily convened (on the exact same day that Dr. Kelly's body was discovered). The appropriate Coroner's Inquest was adjourned pending the conclusion of the inquiry. Subsequent to the publication of the Hutton Report, the Coroner's Inquest was re-convened. At that time it was announced, by the Coroner, that he was prepared to take the conclusion of the Hutton Report as his verdict i.e. suicide (by applying Section 17A). Amongst the reasons he gave, were that he could see no 'exceptional circumstances' not to, and also added that he was doing this in deference to the family of the deceased.
All of the reasons given by the Coroner are perfectly re-usable in any other cases, at any time in the future.
Nevertheless the overall result is that we now have a situation, in law (by virtue of precedent), whereby a prominent person could meet an unexpected demise, such that a media furore is created. This furore could then be used to set a Judge's Inquiry into motion. The inquiry has no power of subpoena, nor an integral right of cross-examination and witnesses are not required to take an oath. Upon publication of the final report, a Coroner (employing the reasons given in the case of Dr. David Kelly), could then subsume his full and formal Inquest to the conclusions of the inquiry.
In short, this methodology enables witnesses to legally avoid providing testimony, or (if they do so) to avoid perjury in the case of the unexpected demise of a prominent person.
Is this a satisfactory way of serving the bereaved, and discharging our duty to a deceased person, whatever their status?
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