Anonymisation of victims of sexual-offences in Inquest proceedings

The principle of open justice, allowing pubic scrutiny of how citizens come by their deaths, is at the core of the inquest process. Save in exceptional circumstances[1] Inquests should be heard in open court with the media able to fully report the proceedings.

“The names of those who are born and those who die are rightly a matter of public record. The fact that someone has died is always a matter of proper public interest and the ability to record it is a normal incident of society.”[2]

Readers will be familiar with Coroners’ powers under Section 39(1) of the Children and Young Persons Act 1933 to restrict reporting of the name of a child who is a witness or an IP. However Coroners have very limited alternative powers to protect the vulnerable who are not themselves an IP or witness at the inquest.

In exceptional cases, High Court judges have powers to make or extend a Reporting Restrictions Order (RRO) to protect others, such as family members of the deceased, from unwelcome press attention (see earlier UK Inquest Law Blog post here re an RRO made in the Court of Protection in anticipation of an inquest).

However another often overlooked provision applicable to Coronial proceedings, and used effectively in a recent inquest, is Section 1 Sexual Offences (Amendment) Act 1992.

There is no public interest in having unnecessary duplication of Investigations or Inquiries

R (on the application of Secretary of State for Transport) (Claimant) v HM Senior Coroner for Norfolk (Defendant) & British Airline Pilots Association (Intervener) [2016] EWHC 2279 (Admin)

Readers of the UK Inquest Law Blog need no reminding that prior to the Coroners and Justice Act 2009, coroners had no power to order disclosure of any document so that if disclosure was required, an application had to be made to the High Court. The immediate point for the Divisional Court to decide in this case was the correct interpretation of the powers of coroners to require a person to produce documents (paragraph 2 of Schedule 5 of the 2009 Act).

The involvement of the Lord Chief Justice indicates that there is a point of general importance.

Polarising the dichotomy! Inquest juries need it kept clear and simple

R (Maxine Hamilton-Jackson) v HM Assistant Coroner for Mid Kent and Medway [2016] EWHC 1796 (Admin), 19.7.16

The absence of opening or closing speeches at inquests means that the need for clarity when summing up is all the more important. The jury must know clearly what they need to find as facts in order to justify any conclusion and, as the Chief Coroner has put it:

“Coroners, however well intentioned, should do their best in directing a jury to avoid using language which is not in everyday use, language which may not be clearly understood”. 

So what are an inquest jury to make of being told they need to decide whether or not there was a failure of a prison system or in the operation of a prison system, by “polarising the dichotomy between: is it mandatory to open an ACCT when a particular event occurs or is it mandatory to open an ACCT when the relevant official considers there is a risk of suicide or self-harm?”

Quashing the jury’s response to just one part of the jury questionnaire in this case, the Divisional Court has held that not only was there a misdirection, because the jury could not be clear what they were being asked to decide, but also re-iterated how the meaning of a policy is not a matter of fact to be determined by the jury, but is a question of law to be determined by the Coroner.

What does Article 2 require after a death in prison from “natural causes”?

R (Tyrrell) v Senior Coroner for Durham & Darlington [2016] EWHC 1892 (Admin), 26.7.16 (here)

Around two thirds of the 250 deaths in prison each year are from a naturally occurring cause. In a decision that will be warmly welcomed by Coroners, the Divisional Court has now determined that there is no obligation to hold an Art 2 inquest into such deaths unless there are grounds to believe that there was some failure in the healthcare provided by the state.

This case in which the Claimant’s arguments were described as being advanced at a “high level of legal abstraction” is happily a victory for pragmatism and common sense.   

Were it otherwise Coroners would be obliged to conduct a large number of ‘Article 2 inquests’, to no discernable benefit of anyone and despite it being abundantly clear before the hearing that nothing untoward had taken place.

Eleventh hour challenge to an inquest disclosure decision refused

Burke-Monerville v HM Senior Coroner of Inner North London, application for urgent relief, High Court: Fri 8 July

The trend of recent decisions in the High Court has been a general reluctance to hear challenges to coroners’ procedural decisions prior to the end of an inquest. Whether the proceedings have or have not been substantively or procedurally unfair is an issue that is best determined after the end of the hearing when the totality of the proceedings and the evidence can be considered.

It is unsurprising therefore that this urgent application for an injunction seeking to prevent an inquest going ahead on a Monday morning was refused in an extempore decision delivered at midnight on Friday.