The inquests into the deaths of 22 people in the Manchester Arena attack should be converted into a public inquiry “as a matter of urgency”, a coroner has formally requested.
Earlier this month, Sir John Saunders granted applications by the Home Office and police for public interest immunity (PII) on the grounds of protecting national security.
He ruled that disclosing some evidence in public would “assist terrorists” in carrying out similar atrocities and said his provisional view was that an “adequate investigation” could not be conducted within the frameworks of the inquests.
Setting up a public inquiry would mean that such evidence could be heard in private session without the families of the victims and their lawyers being present.
On Friday, Sir John wrote to Home Secretary Priti Patel to confirm he had decided a statutory public inquiry was necessary.
He said: “I have reached the view that, in light of my ruling on the PII applications made by yourself and the counter-terrorism police that such an investigation cannot now be achieved through the inquests and must be done by establishing a statutory public inquiry.
“No interested persons involved in the inquests, including the families, have made submissions objecting to this proposed course.
“I would therefore invite you to establish that statutory public inquiry as a matter of urgency to allow for the hearings scheduled to begin in April 2020 to take place as a public inquiry.”
He continued: “It is of paramount importance that a procedural issue, such as the request for a public inquiry in place of the inquests, must not be permitted to otherwise delay the start date for hearings which will allow families to understand the circumstances in which their family members were killed and to ensure that the circumstances of the arena attack are fully investigated.”
The retired High Court judge added that arrangements are being made for the hearings to be held in a specially constructed room within Manchester Magistrates’ Court and any delay to the start date would have “a wider financial and administrative impact”.
Now that the coroner has decided that an inquest cannot satisfactorily investigate the deaths, the Home Secretary will carefully consider his recommendation and respond as soon as possibleHome Office
He said he was “reassured” from submissions by the Home Secretary’s counsel that she wished to ensure any decision to convert the inquiry was made as “expeditiously as possible”.
A Home Office spokesman said: “It is vital that those who survived or lost loved ones in the Manchester Arena attack get the answers that they need and that we learn the lessons, whatever they may be.
“This process is an important step for those affected as they look to move on from the attack and we know that they want answers as quickly as possible.
“Now that the coroner has decided that an inquest cannot satisfactorily investigate the deaths, the Home Secretary will carefully consider his recommendation and respond as soon as possible.”
Part of the latest pre-inquest review hearing into the deaths of 22 people at the end of an Ariana Grande concert on May 22 2017 was held in private to consider the PII applications over material related to the issue of whether the attack by suicide bomber Salman Abedi could have been prevented by the authorities.
Sir John reassured families attending the hearing at Manchester Town Hall on September 6 that public interest immunity “will not be used as a device for covering up responsibility” and that he will do his “very best” to ensure that does not happen.
John Cooper QC, representing a number of the families, told the coroner that the people making the application “are the very people who could potentially be severely criticised, and the ramifications of that are significant”.