Three recent cases indicate a substantial change in law and practice, with inquests now seemingly free to make a determination of unlawful killing notwithstanding the acquittal of a defendant at a criminal trial.
The coronial and criminal jurisdictions have a long and tangled relationship. The word “murder” derives from “murdrum”, the Medieval tax levied on a community after a coronial finding that an unidentified body was that of a Norman. In later centuries, juries at inquests could find people guilty of murder, empowering the coroner to issue an arrest warrant and commit them for trial. Yet from common soil and entwined roots, inquests and trials grew into increasingly distinct plants and during the twentieth century the primacy of criminal investigations and prosecutions became enshrined in legislation. Coroners were required to suspend inquests during criminal proceedings. If resumed, those inquests were prohibited from coming to conclusions that were “inconsistent” with the verdict of the criminal court: see what is now para.8(5) of Schedule 1 of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009 (“CJA 2009”). After 1977, inquests were prohibited from appearing to determine criminal liability on the part of a named person: see what is now s.10(2)(a) CJA 2009. The conclusion of “unlawful killing” remained, but inquests could no longer formally identify who was responsible; that was a matter solely for the criminal courts.
A niche question, but an important one for those in the field, particularly as the Northern Ireland Court of Appeal has found that it is not.
The case concerns a coroner’s decision to seek disclosure of an expert report prepared on behalf of the families of two soldiers who were found dead at their barracks. The families resisted disclosure relying on s.17B(2)(a)of the Coroners Act (Northern Ireland) 1959, which provides that a person cannot be compelled to produce a document to a coroner if he or she could not be required to do so in civil proceedings in Northern Ireland. (An equivalent provision for England and Wales is found at para. 2(1)(a) of Schedule 5 of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009.) The expert report, they argued, attracted litigation privilege. The coroner’s case was that as inquests were non-adversarial they were not litigation, and hence no privilege could be asserted.
NICA found for the coroner, with reluctance. Had it had a blank sheet, it would have held that litigation privilege applied. There were good reasons why it should do so, not least as it allowed for a participant in an inquest to take reasonable steps to inform and prepare its position (see the dissenting speech of Lord Nicholls in Re L (a minor)  AC 16). However, the court considered itself bound by the majority in Re L and the authority of Three Rivers District Council and Others v Gov of the Bank of England (No 6)  1 AC 610 (HL), and in particular the conditions for litigation privilege set out as  by Lord Carswell in the latter case:
(a) litigation must be in progress and contemplation;
(b) the communications must be made for the sole or dominant purpose of conducting that litigation; and
(c) litigation must be adversarial, not investigative or inquisitorial.
Although the court found for the coroner on the point before it, the victory was pyrrhic. Morgan LCJ, delivering the judgment of the court, joined the High Court in questioning the wisdom of the coroner’s decision to seek disclosure of the report. The coroner had already instructed his own expert, whose report he had found to be satisfactory; what public interest was there in seeking disclosure of the families’ report in what appears to have been an unprecedented way? The court invited the families to consider an application under s.17A(4)(b) of the 1959 Act, which provides that a person can resist disclosure to the coroner on the basis that it “is not reasonable in all the circumstances to require him to comply with such a notice” (see also para. 1(4)(b) of Schedule 5 of the 2009 Act for England and Wales). The court’s view (obiter) was that, ‘it appeared to us that the balance was highly likely to favour the view that a requirement to disclose the report was not reasonable’ .
Those involved in the coronial proceedings may wish to take note of this judgment, and in particular the tight definition of litigation privilege. However, properly interested persons should be aware of the alternative basis for resisting disclosure provided by the relevant statutory provisions on reasonableness. Coroners will no doubt read the final paragraphs of the NICA judgment and ask themselves whether seeking disclosure of such reports is really appropriate in the first place.
It should also be noted that where an expert report is prepared for the ‘dominant purpose’ of adversarial litigation, privilege will apply as long as the other two conditions set out in Three Rivers (No. 6) are also met.
There is a further implication of the judgment that is of practical interest. The 2009 Act makes it a criminal offence to ‘suppress or conceal’ a document where it is likely that the coroner ‘may wish to be provided with it’: para. 7(2)(a) and 7(3) of Schedule 6. If an expert report is not covered by litigation privilege, then it is at least possible that a coroner may wish to be provided with it. That being so, is there an obligation on those connected with an inquest to inform the coroner about the existence of such a report, even if they do not wish to rely on it in evidence?
NB The judgment was handed down in June 2020, but has only recently been made available online.
R (Peter Skelton and anr) v Senior Coroner for West Sussex  EWHC 2813 (Admin) — Judgment here.
Susan Nicholson and Caroline Devlin were killed by the same man during the course of abusive relationships. They died in 2011 and 2006, but the man was not convicted – of murder and manslaughter respectively – until 2017. The inquest into Susan’s death in 2011 resulted in a verdict of accidental death. Following the murder conviction, the Coroner applied to the High Court for this to be quashed, with the intention of holding a short inquest at which a fresh conclusion of “unlawful killing” would be recorded. However, the Claimants in this case – Susan’s parents – sought to expand the scope of the inquest to consider what they thought, understandably, were police failings. They were successful; this blog explains why, and examines the wider implications of the ruling.
The High Court has today handed down judgment in R (EA and Anor) v Chairman of the Manchester Arena Inquiry  EWHC 2053 (Admin) refusing permission for judicial review to a group of survivors who unsuccessfully sought core participant status in the forthcoming inquiry into the Manchester Arena bombing attacks. A full legal analysis of the decision will follow. This article provides a summary of the judgment and its context.
Inquiries and inquests into public disasters and terrorist attacks inevitably, and rightly, focus on those who died. But what of the many who are injured, and whose lives will be transformed as a result of the events? What role should they play in the public investigation that follows?
Ms Sturgess tragically died of Novichok poisoning, having inadvertently opened a discarded perfume bottle containing the nerve agent. Her death came some four months after the highly publicised poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal in Salisbury.
The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice, David Gauke, has published his report into the Review of Legal Aid for Inquests. This follows numerous campaigns and calls for more extensive funding for bereaved families at inquests, particularly those where the state is represented.
short, the news is not good for those campaigners:
Having considered the impact of additional representatives on bereaved families, the financial considerations, and the impact of a possible expansion on the wider legal aid scheme, we have decided that we will not be introducing non-means tested legal aid for inquests where the state has represented [sic]. However, going forward, we will be looking into further options for the funding of legal support at inquests where the state has state-funded representation. To do this we will work closely with other Government Departments.
Another search, it seems, for ‘alternative arrangements’.
Independence and public inquiries – why you need it and how you can lose it
There is a scene in “Yes Minister” in which the beleaguered Jim Hacker is contemplating a public inquiry into the latest failing of his department. He warily suggests to his Permanent Secretary, Sir Humphrey Appleby, that perhaps the judge chairing the inquiry could be leant on to come up with a favourable outcome. Sir Humphrey is outraged at this violation of the separation of powers. Surely the Minister wasn’t serious? After all, wouldn’t it be better to appoint a judge who didn’t need to be leant on in the first place?
Jim Duffy’s recent post on the Contaminated Blood Inquiry – and the importance of an inquiry being independent and being seen to be independent – brought this encounter to mind. The ever more frequent calls for a ‘judge-led inquiry’ must be a source of both pride and concern to the judiciary. Pride as ‘judge-led’ is a synonym for a forensic, thorough and above all independent tribunal to assess the matter in question. We will come to the concern later.
Times have changed since the careers of Hacker and Sir Humphrey. The Inquiries Act 2005 contains provisions intended to secure and display the suitability and impartiality of those charged with conducting a statutory inquiry (see in particular s.8 and 9). When it comes to appointing a judge, the Act provides that the minister must consult with the Lord Chief Justice or another relevant senior member of the judiciary (s.10). Sir Humphrey would be disappointed. Continue reading →
An NHS Trust v CS (By Her Litigation Friend, the Official Solicitor) ] EWCOP Read the judgement.
The Court of Protection does the work of Solomon on a daily basis. Matters of life and death are brought before it, and with them come a mass of conflicting rights, overlapping statutes, and an array of case law from which arguments can be drawn. At the end of it, an individual judge must make a stark decision, which may have the most profound impact on another human being. One of those charged with making such decisions once divided the advocates who appeared before him into those who complicate and those who clarify. There is no surprise as to which he preferred.
Baker J’s judgment in this disturbing case will boost the cause of the clarifiers. CS has two children and, before Christmas, became pregnant by her then partner. It was a relationship that, it is alleged, became “characterised by domestic violence” (a phrase that it somehow more chilling for its judicial restraint). CS told friends and families that, in the circumstances, she intended to terminate the pregnancy. Days later she was, allegedly, assaulted by her partner. She was hospitalised with serious head injuries comprising fractures, intracranial bleeding and brain damage. She has post-traumatic amnesia and her behaviour has become extremely unsettled, marked by agitation, restlessness and disruptive acts. Her prognosis is uncertain.
The Trust treating her brought an application to the Court, seeking an urgent order to allow them to perform a surgical abortion. The urgency arose because the window of time during which such a procedure could be performed was closing. With the urgency came a plethora of issues. CS’s condition may improve in the future, but by then it could be too late to terminate the pregnancy. In those circumstances, what weight should be given to the evidence from CS family and friends of her prior intention to have a termination? How should that be balanced against her current wishes, insofar as they can be ascertained? What significance should be attached to the fact that she had previously had a termination? And what, if any, attention should be paid to the views of her partner, now arrested and remanded in custody? Continue reading →
Kent County Council, R (on the application of) v HM Coroner for the County of Kent (North-West District) & Ors  EWHC 2768 (Admin) – read judgment
The High Court – including the new Chief Coroner – has held that the enhanced investigative duty under Article 2, the right to life, is not engaged in an inquest into the death of a 14 year old boy, despite “many missed opportunities” for intervention by social services being identified.
Another sad case on when and how the enhanced investigative duty under Article 2 ECHR is engaged. EB, a troubled 14 year old, died of a methadone overdose in November 2009. He was known to the claimant’s social services department, who were the subject of criticism in a serious case review following his death. The review found that there had been “many missed opportunities” to intervene, but felt that: “It cannot be concluded that a different approach … would have prevented [EB]’s death, but there is a possibility that there may have been a different outcome.” The council have since apologised unreservedly to the family.
Communist prisoners held during the Malaya emergency Photograph: Jack Birns/Time & Life Pictures
Chong Nyok Keyu and ors v Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs and another  EWHC 2445 (Admin), read judgment
Although the High Court has rejected an attempt to force the Government to hold a public inquiry into an alleged massacre of unarmed civilians by British troops in 1948, the case represents a further example of the use of the Courts to redress historical grievances.
There are two German words for dealing with the traumatic recent past, neither of which has a direct equivalent in English. This linguistic quirk reflects history and national self-identity. The defeats of the Kaiser, the Nazis and the GDR Communists led to national introspection in Germany, whereas the United Kingdom, on the winning side in each of the those three struggles, evaded such soul-searching. The post-war decline was relatively gentle and easy to fit in to the national myth of historical continuity. An Empire absent-mindedly acquired was considered to be the subject of an orderly and benevolent liquidation, with lasting benefits of railways and the rule of law left to the inheritors.
What – if anything – can a claimant do when she suspects that the domestic law is not only out of kilter with Strasbourg jurisprudence but is also denying her even an opportunity to bring a claim? Taking arms against a whole legal system may be an heroic ideal, but the mundane reality is a strike out under CPR rule 3.4 by a district judge in the County Court. It is a long way from there to the European Court of Human Rights.
This was the position in which Patricia Reynolds and her daughter Catherine King found themselves following the sad death of (respectively) their son and brother. David Reynolds suffered from schizophrenia. On 16 March 2005 he contacted his NHS Care Co-ordinator and told him that he was hearing voices telling him to kill himself. There were no beds available in the local psychiatric unit, so Mr Reynolds was placed in a Council run intensive support unit. His room was on the sixth floor and at about 10.30 that night Mr Reynolds broke his (non-reinforced) window and fell to his death. Continue reading →
In my previous blog on the Supreme Court’s judgment in Rabone I discussed the central feature of the case, the extension of the operational duty on the state to protect specific individuals from threats to their life, including suicide. Here, I consider the other elements of the case that Melanie Rabone’s parents had to establish in order to succeed in their claim for damages under the Human Rights Act 1998 (“HRA”).
Existence of the operational duty in Melanie’s case
Having established that the operational duty could be applied in Melanie’s case, her parents then had to establish, on the facts, that it was – by showing that there was a “real and immediate” threat to her life from which she should have been protected. Ever since the notion of an operational duty was first enunciated in Osman v United Kingdom (2000) 29 EHRR 245, it has become something of a judicial mantra that the threshold for establishing a “real and immediate” threat was high (see for example Re Officer L UKHL 36, and Savage v South Essex Partnership NHS Foundation Trust  AC 681  and ,). There are good reasons for not imposing the operational duty lightly, given the enormous pressures and complexities involved in running police, prison and mental health services for the community as a whole. However, an overly-stringent test risked making the operational duty an obligation that was more hypothetical than real.
At first sight, Article 2 – the ‘right to life’ – seems to be a prohibition on extra-judicial executions and state-sponsored death squads. It does, of course have a role to play in that respect (and one that is not limited to those countries whose signature of the Convention is viewed with scepticism from Western Europe).
But through a combination of logic, inventive legal argument and what can either be characterised as the incremental development of a new area of law, or the expansionist tendencies of Strasbourg judges, the scope of Article 2 has broadened significantly, and can be cited in cases concerning prison administration and coronial procedural law.
In Rabone, the Supreme Court extended the obligations that the Article places on the state and its servants still further, beyond even the existing decisions from Strasbourg. They held that – in the specific circumstances of this tragic case – an NHS Trust had violated the positive duty that it had, under Article 2, to protect a voluntary patient from the risk of suicide.
McCaughey & Anor, Re Application for Judicial Review  UKSC 20 (18 May 2011)- Read judgment
The Supreme Court has followed the European Court of Human Rights in ruling that an inquest into the death of two people killed before the introduction of the Human Rights Act is still bound by the rules laid down by that Act. In so doing, it preferred a “poorly reasoned and unstable decision” of the Strasbourg Court to a clearly drafted Act of Parliament and a recent decision of the House of Lords. How did this happen, should it have done so – and does it really matter?
The case concerned an appeal to the Supreme Court against a decision from the Northern Ireland Court of Appeal on which we have previously blogged at length. The appellants were the families of two men killed by the British Army during an attack on a police station in Northern Ireland in 1990. Allegations were made that a “shoot to kill policy” was being operated by the security forces.
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