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Coroner wins appeal over scope of inquests into 1974 Birmingham pub bombings

Leading judges in London allowed a challenge by Sir Peter Thornton QC against a High Court ruling earlier this year.

The coroner in charge of inquests into the 1974 Birmingham pub bombings has won an appeal against a ruling which overturned his decision not to investigate who was responsible for the atrocities as part of the proceedings.

Three Court of Appeal judges in London allowed a challenge by Sir Peter Thornton QC against the ruling made by the High Court earlier this year after a successful judicial review action by bereaved families.

The High Court had quashed Sir Peter’s decision to exclude the “perpetrator” issue, and ordered him to reconsider that decision.

But on Wednesday the Lord Chief Justice Lord Burnett, Lady Justice Hallett and Lord Justice McCombe allowed the coroner’s appeal.

Lord Burnett, announcing the Court of Appeal’s decision following a hearing in July, said the coroner had made “no error of law” and his decision “is not open to legal objection”.

He added: “We allow the appeal and restore the original decision.”

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The Mulberry Bush pub and surrounding buildings in Birmingham following the bomb attacks (PA)

The ruling challenged by Sir Peter was made by two High Court judges sitting in Birmingham in January.

Giving that decision, Mrs Justice Carr said: “We are minded to quash the coroner’s decision which excluded the perpetrator issue and remit the case so as to enable him to reconsider the decision.”

The bombings in two city centre pubs, widely believed to be the work of the IRA, killed 21 people and injured 182, making it the deadliest peacetime attack in the UK at the time.

The coroner ruled in July last year that investigations into the identity of those responsible for the atrocities should not form part of his inquiry.

Six men, known as the Birmingham Six, were imprisoned for the murders and served 17 years behind bars in one of Britain’s most infamous miscarriages of justice before their convictions were quashed.

Five West Midlands Police officers were charged with perverting the course of justice in connection with the original criminal investigation, but a judge ruled in 1993 that a fair trial would be impossible.

During the appeal proceedings before the three judges, lawyers for the coroner said the hearings will not resolve the “enduring injustice” for victims and their families.

Peter Skelton QC, representing the coroner, said the victims, their families and the public interest “cannot be served” by a promised resolution that “cannot be delivered”.

The High Court decision followed a judicial review brought on behalf of the bereaved families by Julie Hambleton, whose sister Maxine was 18 when she was killed in the bombings.

Mrs Hambleton, spokeswoman for victims’ campaign group Justice4the21, has said it would be “utterly redundant to have the inquests unless the perpetrators, their associates and those who prepared and planted the bombs are included”.

Hugh Southey QC, representing the families, told the appeal judges: “There is the utmost public interest in the proper investigation of who was responsible for the Birmingham bombings.

“The families of the deceased said to the appellant (Sir Peter) that the investigation of this issue was so important to them that if it did not form part of the scope of the inquest ‘we may as well not have an inquest at all’.”

Giving a summary of the court’s judgment, Lord Burnett said: “The issue in this appeal is whether the coroner conducting the inquests into the deaths of those murdered in the Birmingham pub bombings in 1974 was entitled as a matter of law to exclude as a distinct issue to be explored by evidence the identities of those who carried out the bombings.

“Last year a senior coroner ordered that the inquests into those deaths, long ago adjourned because of the criminal proceedings which followed, should be resumed. Her principal reason for doing so was to enable consideration of the question whether the authorities had information on which they should have acted before the bombings.”

Sir Peter, who is conducting the inquests, “was invited to explore as a distinct issue at the inquests the identities of those responsible for the bombings”.

Lord Burnett continued: “The statutory scheme provides that neither he nor the jury can name anyone they believe responsible; and exhaustive police inquiries since the acquittal of those originally convicted for the bombings have been unable to do so.”

He said: “In deciding the scope of the inquests, Sir Peter set out the issues of which evidence will be called but excluded what became known as the perpetrator issue. The High Court quashed his decision on the basis that he had approached the question in the wrong way. It ordered him to make the decision again.”

Lord Burnett said the Court of Appeal had “concluded that there was no error of law in his approach”.

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