R (Maguire) v Assistant Coroner West Yorkshire [2017] EWHC 2039 (Admin) 14 August 2017 (judgment here)

The horrific murder of Mrs Ann Maguire, a school teacher stabbed in her classroom by a 15 year old pupil, justifiably shocked the Nation. Now that William Cornick has pleaded guilty to her murder (and been sentenced to a minimum of 20 years’ detention) Mrs Maguire’s inquest will be resumed; but first the controversial issue of whether some of the school’s pupils tangentially caught up in the events should be called to give evidence at the inquest has had to be resolved.

“The distress of a young witness is not necessarily a reason why that witness cannot or should not give oral evidence.”

Following the murder some pupils had revealed in police interviews what they knew of Cornick’s actions in the period before the killing. These “interviewed pupils” reported how Cornick had at times behaved strangely, making morbid or sick jokes. He had expressed a wish to kill teachers and very shortly before the killing made specific statements about killing Mrs Maguire. Only one pupil had reported this behaviour to a teacher, but by then the murder had just been committed. Most of the other pupils did not take the threatening remarks seriously and so did not report them, assuming he was merely showing off. The one pupil who did take the threats seriously said nothing out of concern that if he did so it may provoke Cormick to attack him. After the killing that pupil had reflected “It’s like I could have stopped it. I did nothing.”

The Claimants (her widower and other members of Mrs Maguire’s family) wanted these “interviewed pupils” called so that the inquest could hear evidence as to the students’ understanding of the school rules relating to weapons in school and whistleblowing, and, for those who had taken no action, to explain why this was. The Claimants emphasised they did not seek to ascribe any blame or criticism to any pupil, but rather wished to minimise the risk of any similar horror occurring in the future. They wanted the inquest to explore lessons to be learned as to how children might be encouraged and supported to share concerns with trusted adults.

The application was opposed by some of the interested parties including Leeds City Council and Leeds Safeguarding Children Board and by Mrs Maguire’s sisters (themselves teachers with several decades of experience) who were concerned about the effect on pupils who might be called to give evidence. A statement from of the school Vice Principal showed that a number of school pupils had been badly affected by the events and required counselling. He had worked with the majority of the most affected children and he was concerned that questioning at an inquest would cause at them, at very least, real distress. He perceived a major risk that work done over the previous three years could be undone.

The Assistant Coroner had already determined that the scope of the inquest should include examination of the policies and procedures prevailing at the school for matters to be reported in confidence by pupils to staff members and how these were communicated to the pupils. However he declined to call the interviewed pupils in order to explore this issue.  The Coroner’s position was that the relevant information was already available in the pupils’ police interviews; he considered that the interviewed pupils could provide little further assistance to the inquest and so determined that that the limited additional benefit which could be achieved by calling these students did not justify the distress likely to be caused to them.

It was common ground that the Coroner had been right to weigh in the balance the potential value of the evidence which might be given against the potential harm to the students of requiring them to revisit such a dreadful event and potentially exposing them to implications of blame for failing to take action which would have saved Mrs Maguire’s life. Nevertheless the Claimants sought judicial review contending that the Coroner’s decision was irrational, unfair and failed to take into account relevant matters. They submitted that in weighing benefit and risk the Coroner had struck the balance wrongly and so removed the only evidence which could be given on an issue which the Coroner had identified as being in scope.

The judge did not agree. In his comprehensive and sensitive judgment Mr Justice Holroyde noted that the distress of a young witness was not necessarily a reason why that witness cannot or should not give oral evidence. This being judicial review proceedings the issue for the judge was not where the balance should be struck, but whether the Coroner’s conclusion as to where the balance lay was one which was not reasonably open to him. He concluded that the Assistant Coroner’s decision could not be impugned[1].

The Judge found that for the most part the interviewed pupils had already volunteered their reasons for acting or failing to act and none of that reasoning suggested that pupils did not know they could speak to a teacher or thought their report would not be treated seriously. The Coroner had properly taken into account that this relevant information could be extracted from the transcripts of the interviews and put before a jury. He had also correctly taken account of the risk of re-traumatising a witness and the impact of the passage of time since the shocking events upon the pupils’ recollections of their own reasoning. The Coroner had been entitled to have regard to the views of Mrs Maguire’s sisters and the Vice Principle.   Although they were not giving evidence as an expert witness each spoke with relevant experience, and their views were relevant to the decision.

Commentary:

The often repeated passage from Jamieson acts as a reminder that the function of an inquest is to ascertain as many of the facts concerning the death as the public interest requires:

“The coroner must ensure that the relevant facts are fully, fairly and fearlessly investigated…[and] exposed to public scrutiny… He fails in his duty if his investigation is superficial, slipshod or perfunctory”

However this has never meant that the investigation is limitless. As Sir Thomas Bingham MR went on to say in Jamieson “…But the responsibility is his. He must set the bounds of the inquiry. He must rule on the procedure to be followed.”

More recently, in R (Mack) v HM Coroner for Birmingham,[2] the Court of Appeal reiterated how the Coroner has “… a wide discretion – or perhaps more appropriately a wide range of judgment – whom it is expedient to call. The court will only intervene if satisfied that the decision made was one which was not properly open to him on Wednesbury principles.”

Even after setting the scope of an inquest the Coroner retains a wide discretion as to how those matters deemed to be within scope will be explored. As Holroyde J succinctly put it

“Ruling an issue in scope does not carry with it a duty for a coroner to ask, or to permit an interested person to ask, every conceivable question relating to that issue.”

The judge in the present case emphasised that the Assistant Coroner did not regard the potential evidence of the interviewed pupils as having no value. Nor did he take the view that the interviewed pupils could give no evidence which would be worth giving. Rather, he considered what evidence they could or might give and concluded that the benefit of calling their evidence would be “small” and needed to be set against the risks.

Although there was room for different views as to how the final balance should be struck, this Coroner had considered the relevant matters when he formed his judgment regarding the benefits and risks.   His conclusion, that the investigatory imperative did not require oral evidence to be heard from these young people when their earlier police interviews were available was a conclusion reasonably open to him in the context of the foreseeable risk of inflicting psychological harm.

It is also of note that the Claimants’ submission that at very least the Assistant Coroner should have made a specific inquiry as to whether any of the interviewed pupils would be willing to give evidence was also rejected. However that aspect is perhaps confined to the unique facts of the case:   when the likely benefit to be achieved by calling the evidence was small no individual or detailed inquiry was necessary. In other circumstances individual approaches to witnesses are likely to be required.[3] As the Judge noted, if a prospective witness had crucial evidence to give, a more detailed inquiry and more careful consideration of reducing risks through possible special measures might well be necessary.

 

[1] Permission to appeal was refused and the Claimants were ordered to pay the Coroner’s costs of £10,719.

[2] [2011] EWCA Civ 712; [2011] Inquest LR 17.

[3] See also Shafi v HM Coroner East London [2015] Inquest LR 154, where it was a failure in due process that individual invitations had not been extended to key witnesses out of the jurisdiction to attend a hearing in person or by video link.