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The dangers lurking behind inquests held in secrecy

A society which places much value on the sanctity of human life must also look closely at death.

It is proposed under the Coroners and Justice Bill put before the Westminster Parliament this week to make changes in the inquest system which investigates death.

If the legislation is extended to Northern Ireland, not all the changes are likely to be generally welcomed — not even by the coroners who conduct the inquests.

In the Middle Ages the office of coroner was created because the king wanted a local official to make sure that corrupt sheriffs did not prevent a dead person’s property from rightly going to the crown.

The system developed so that an inquest is held when death comes violently or unexpectedly.

Some inquests have aroused enormous public concern, such as in the cases of Princess Diana, the Hillsborough Stadium football disaster and Jean-Charles de Menezes, the innocent Brazilian man shot dead by police at a London tube station.

It is easy to ascribe public interest in some inquests as being due to mere morbid curiosity.

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There are good reasons, however, why an independent agency should look very closely at unusual deaths, especially if there appears to be some sinister factor, or where people have died in custody or through possible insufficient care by employers, doctors or public officials.

The coroner is often the only person who takes on this work in the United Kingdom, except in Scotland where there is a distinctive fatal accident inquiry system. In some cases the coroner must sit with a jury of between seven and 11 people.

If it is accepted by Parliament, the Coroners and Justice Bill will mean that inquiries into some deaths of legitimate public concern will be held without a jury.

It will allow the Justice Secretary, where he or she believes that the investigation will concern matters which should not be made public, and there is no other way to keep it from the public, to rule the inquiry should be held by a High Court judge, sitting without a jury.

Once the Secretary grants a certificate, a secret inquiry can take place after 14 days if there is no appeal to the Queen’s Bench Division on a point of law.

The Justice Secretary will be able to sanction a secret inquiry to protect national security or in the interests of the prevention or detection of crime, or protect the safety of a witness or other person. More alarmingly, however, is the last reason for holding an inquiry behind closed doors — to ‘prevent real harm to the public interest’.

In the United Kingdom there is a long history of laws being used for purposes for which they were never intended when they were put before Parliament.

The danger in the last provision for a secret inquest is that it will be held where the actual objective is to avoid political embarrassment, such as when promises have not been kept or Parliament has been misled.

Relatives of servicemen and women killed in action could find that the real cause of the death of their loved one never emerges publicly.

The decision on whether an inquiry into a death should be held in secret at all should be taken by an independent assessor such as a judge, rather than by a politician who may have some ulterior motive. Even High Court judges can sometimes be easily persuaded by Government; but a judge is more likely to decide dispassionately whether an open inquest would harm the public interest, or merely harm the interests of the Government.

Walter Greenwood is a Media law expert

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