Overturning an open verdict after a murder conviction

HM Coroner for the Isle of Wight v (1) HM Prison Service (2) Family of Alvin Bay (dec) [2015] EWHC 1360 (Admin), 1.4.2015

The sad case of Alvin Bay sets out no new proposition of law, but perhaps leads one to wonder whether there should be some mechanism to allow a Senior Coroner (or even the Chief Coroner) to have a quicker and easier procedure to overturn an inquest conclusion when there is a clear need to do so and no-one is objecting to that action.

The facts 

In 1994 Mr Bay was found hanging in prison. At his inquest in 1995 the jury returned an open verdict and recorded the time, place and circumstances in which injury causing death was sustained as follows:

“On 14 August 1994 at about 02:00 in the hospital wing at Parkhurst Prison, Alvin Bay, a prison inmate, was watching television. A little later the set was seen still to be on with no one watching it. At 03:00 another inmate, Peter Brown, used the urinal and then suddenly noticed Mr Bay hanging from the window bars by means of bandages tied round his neck. Mr Bay was certified dead at 03:30.” 

New information was received about the death in 2012 which prompted the Hampshire Police Major Investigation Team to reopen the investigation and in 2013 Peter Brown subsequently confessed that his inquest evidence had been untrue and that he had killed Mr Bay: he was convicted of his murder.

The decision

Clearly the open verdict recorded at the original inquest and on the death certificate was now known to be incorrect. But, as there is no means by which a Coroner can overturn an inquest, the Coroner was required to apply for a fiat of the Attorney General. The Attorney General then properly sought for the views of the next of kin, Mr Bay’s mother. She indicated that she did not object but wished not to take any active part in either the proceedings or a new inquest if one was ordered. The fiat was then obtained following which the Coroner made an application to the Administrative Court for the inquest to be quashed and a fresh inquest ordered.

That decision of course caused the Court no difficulty. Under Section 13(1)(b) Coroners Act 1988 if the Court was satisfied that, by reason of the discovery of new facts or evidence, it was necessary and desirable in the interests of justice that another investigation should be held, it could quash the original inquisition and order the Coroner to conduct a new investigation into the death.

Bean LJ pointed out how the language of s.13 required a single question to be answered, namely whether the interests of justice made a further inquest either necessary or desirable.

There was only one possible answer to that question in this case, which was “Yes”. Arrangements were then made for a fresh inquest with a jury to be held.


Whilst it was obvious that the conclusion of the first inquest could not stand, in these days of financial austerity and overworked courts it is perhaps of concern that there is no fast track procedure to achieve the obvious outcome cases such as this. We know of no case when a Coroner’s application to quash an inquisition has been rejected by the court. Yet the Hampshire taxpayers have funded the legal costs of, firstly, applying to the Attorney General’s office then, secondly, making an application to and attending a hearing at the High Court, where a two judge Divisional Court say and handed down a formal judgment.

The Chief Coroner (as noted in his second annual report published 16 July 2015) has already recommended that there needs to be a change in the law by way of amendment to s.13  as at present the High Court’s powers are limited to quashing the inquest and ordering a fresh inquest. Some s.13 cases require only a change to the record of the inquest, and do not need a fresh inquest which may involve extra time and expense, and above all extra distress for families. Perhaps equally pragmatic would be to remove entirely the need for the fiat stage where the s.13 application is made by a Coroner.

It is to be expected that the jury at the subsequent Alvin Bay inquest might not take long before returning a conclusion of unlawful killing in this case – although of course this is not one of those cases where a fresh inquest is not needed. A full Art 2 investigation is likely to be required despite the death pre-dating the convention (see Janowiec and Others v Russia [2013] ECHR 55508) and one would hope that the fresh inquiry will consider how the both the prison and police investigatory systems allowed a murder within the closed environment of a maximum security prison to go undetected for quite so long.