Ministers Given Power to Replace Inquests with Secret Inquiries

Monday, November 23rd, 2009. 3:18am

Last week the Coroners and Justice Act 2009 was passed by Parliament. The act gives ministers the power to order an secret inquiry, without a jury, be held instead of a coroner’s inquest.

I think inquests should be open, public, processes during which the circumstances of a death are determined discussed. An outcome should be improvements to processes and ways of doing things so that all possible can be done to prevent others being killed in the same way. Ministers should not be able to interfere in the way they are run.

Holding inquests in public, and with a jury, is particularly important when someone is killed at the hands of the state; such as when the Metropolitan Police shot Jean Charles de Menezes, or when the state may be at fault such as in case of armed services personnel who’s lack of equipment, training or support may have contributed to their death.

Jack Straw’s Promise

Jack Straw, as the minister who currently holds the post of “Lord Chancellor”, is to be responsible for making decisions to suspend inquests. Since pushing the new law through Parliament he has promised to only use his new powers to hold secret judicial inquiries instead of inquests rarely. I can’t imagine he really thinks that’s going to reassure anyone, and am appalled that the government has decided to remove this significant safeguard. Any law which givers a Minister powers he feels he has to publicly promise he won’t has clearly been drafted too broadly and given the Minister too much power.

I wrote to my MP in March 2008 urging him to oppose secret inquests without juries, which he did. The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats all voted against the government proposals but they were passed as all but a handful of Labour MPs voted for them.

Party Politics is Flawed

In a demonstration of a clear flaw in the party system it appears some Labour MPs failed to exercise independent thought on the matter which they were voting on. Labour MP Andrew Dismore, speaking in the House of Commons, claimed that the slim majority of only eight votes by which the last vote on the subject was won in Parliament was in-fact slimmer than it appeared as a number of MPs had told him they had voted the wrong way by “mistake”. Since the vote his fellow Labour MP Denis MacShane has said he felt he voted the wrong way explaining his actions saying

I am a serial loyalist, and sometimes that overwhelms me.

I wonder which way Cambridge Labour Parliamentary Candidate Daniel Zeichner would have voted in this instance. He appears to me (though he denies it) to be a strong party loyalist and I am concerned that if elected he would follow in the footsteps of MPs like MacShane and end up voting the wrong way for the wrong reasons. I hope that following a general election newly elected MPs will reverse this frightening increase in powers of Ministers, which has given them the power to deny open justice and due process in cases where it is not in their interests to see it happen.

Details of all the votes related to giving Ministers the power to interfere in coroners’ inquests are available on PublicWhip. I have contributed to a number of the division descriptions in an attempt to make it easier to follow what happened.

I have read about how, in the 1800s, inquests into mining accidents used to be held in pubs after a shift and they were well attended by those interested in what had gone wrong in the mine. I think the process has become too remote; and there is no excuse for that given the existence of the internet. How many drivers and cyclists are aware of the findings of inquests into deaths on the roads?

I think many more inquests should be held in as open a manner as the Stockwell inquest. Every day full transcripts and images of the evidence were published online at I thought this made gripping reading; and provided real assurance, through openness and transparency that the police were not as out of control, reckless and bungling as many were making out at the time. By the time of the inquest it was also clear the police had already made changes aimed at preventing a recurrence of the events. As well as the well publicised communication improvements I would hope they are also better at keeping track of and interviewing witnesses in a timely manner, and of course making sure they shout “armed police” and clearly identifying themselves as police officers.

Snippets from the Stockwell Inquest

Defense Barrister Ronald Thwaites QC, acting for the Metropolitan Police took exception to the reporting of the inquest in the Metro newspaper [link]:

Mr Thwaites : My Lord, the Metro and its editor and reporters are recidivist in this case in relation to contempt of court about which they seem to have little or no idea. … the first words of this article, “Bungling police positively identify innocent Brazilian” is quite clearly a contempt of court. …. This editor needs to be brought up short and …

Mr Justice Henriques: Yes. I can only invite him to attend. I can’t issue a warrant for his arrest, much as you would like me to.

Mr Thwaites: Yes, I would. I would like the ball and chain to accompany it. But, my Lord, although I make light of this in my application, we take this seriously.

An interview with a witness reveals flaws in the Met Police’s covert surveillance techniques [link]

Q. You say you assumed he was a police officer?
A. Mm.
Q. What led you to that assumption?
A. T-shirt tucked into jeans, heavy boots on, short haircut, well-built guy. He looked like an undercover police officer.
Q. I think the Metropolitan Police will learn something about covert surveillance. Anything else you noticed about him?
A. Not anything more than that, really.

When Nicholas Hilliard QC, counsel to the inquest, interviewed police firearms officer “Charlie seven” the exchange contained some humour, and also revealed how accurate the dialogue given to Henno Garvey in “Ultimate Force” appears to be. [link] :

A. Yes, at that point I heard Ralph say, “All units stand by, this is Trojan Alpha, state red, state red”.
Q. What did Sam do then?
A. I have written in, and I can remember it, we drove through the traffic lights. I was aware of the team in front because we were generally at the back and I have written in my statement we were actually fourth from the point of the traffic lights. We have driven left into Clapham Road, that’s south, ever so slightly, and then cut across the traffic to what would be the middle of the carriageway where I have deployed from my vehicle.
Q. The lights that you had gone through, were they on what you might call state red as well?
A. I wasn’t paying much attention to the traffic lights, sir, but it wouldn’t be beyond the realms of possibility.

The call of “State Red”, and its meaning, was one of the key points of the inquest.

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