Over half a century later it’s still in the interest of justice to order a fresh inquest

Frost v HM Coroner for West Yorkshire (Eastern District) [2019] EWHC 1100, 8.5.2019

Where new evidence becomes available which renders an inquest’s factual basis inaccurate the interests of justice remain the touchstone for applications under section 13: even the passage of over half a century does not remove the necessity and desirability of ordering a fresh inquest.

Here a bereaved brother successfully applied to quash the decision of the Inquest held in 1966 (under the 1926 Act), which had found that Ian Spencer had murdered his 14 year old sister, Elsie Frost.

Spencer had been committed for trial, but the Crown had offered no evidence against him. A new investigation initiated in 2015 had implicated another man, Peter Pickering, who was already serving a life sentence for manslaughter of a 14 year old in 1972. However, Pickering died in 2018 before a charging decision could be made. The police twice publicly stated they believed he had killed Elsie.

The Coroner questioned the value of a fresh Inquest both in terms of the public interest and the interests of the families, and so left it to the bereaved family to go through the process of seeking a fiat and making an application for a fresh inquest. The Divisional Court clearly did not share the Coroner’s concerns. Indeed, the judgment provides a handy ‘nutshells’ review of the issues relevant to the passage of time in an application under section 13, including the interests of the bereaved, of properly exploring deaths and of setting the record straight. The issue of whether 53 years should render the further investigation into the tragic case unnecessary did not trouble the court,

“Public interest has not been significantly vitiated by the lapse of time”

The truth should be made public

The importance of revealing the truth and setting the record straight for the bereaved was emphasised. For years Elsie’s family had lived with the uncertainty and trauma of this unresolved murder. Meanwhile Spencer had died with the finger of suspicion still pointed at him. It was, said the court, “beyond any doubt that the resolution of this case, to the extent that it may ever be resolved, remains extremely important for the families”.

The Court noted the guidance given by Lord Judge CJ in the Hillsborough case HM Coroner for South Yorkshire (West)[1]:

“Where evidence casts new light on the circumstances in which people meet their death, a fresh inquest into the deaths and the circumstances should be heard”. 

Although significant rule changes had taken place since 1966; the Criminal Law Act 1977 s56[2] being abolished re inquest findings of guilt in murder and manslaughter, and section 10(2) of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009 now determining that inquests must be framed in a way so as to not appear to determine questions of criminal liability in respect of a named person; the new facts would be presented which corrected the former record, in a way which complied with the statutory framework.

Full, fair and fearless investigation

We are reminded, if any reminder were needed, of the often quoted dicta from Jamieson of coroners’ general duty “to ensure that all the relevant facts are fully, fairly and fearlessly investigated” and that “it is the function of an inquest to seek out and record as many of the facts concerning the death as the public interest requires.

It is unsurprising that, where there could be no possibility of criminal proceedings involving Pickering, that it was deemed both necessary and desirable to correct improper inferences and allow a full review of the new evidence to review the new facts. Had Pickering not died any Inquest would have had to await the conclusion of any criminal proceedings which had they taken place, may well have been sufficient to obviate the need for a further Inquest.

One of the ‘concerns’ the Coroner put before the court was that “the most that could be achieved at a fresh Inquest would be to re-affirm that Elsie Frost had been unlawfully killed.” But it was not incumbent upon the applicant to show that the conclusions reached were likely to be different, although clearly here there was significant  prospect of the facts revealing that the wrong man had originally been named on the inquisition.

Can there be Deceased Interested Persons?

It is also of interest to note the approach the court took to Interested Person status. In responding to the application the Coroner had also expressed ‘concern’ as to who would represent the interests of Mr Pickering at any fresh Inquest. Section s47(2)(f) CJA 2009 only appears to extend the right of Interested Person status to a living person who may have caused or contributed to the death of the deceased. But as far as the court was concerned death of both previous suspects to the murder did not extinguish that potential right. The estates of both could apply to participate as interested persons if they wished[3].



[1] [2012] EWHC 3783 (Admin) [2012] Inquest Law Reports 143

[2] s.56 of the Criminal Law Act 1977 stated “the purpose of the [Inquest] proceedings shall not include the finding of any person guilty of murder, manslaughter or infanticide”.

[3] The judgment does not state whether the Court envisaged this to be under s47(2)(f), but in any event s47(2)(m) would give the coroner wide discretion as to who had a “sufficient interest” to be given IP status.