22 November 2010

INQUEST today welcomed the High Court’s rejection of the Home Secretary’s legal bid to exclude bereaved families from parts of the inquests into the London bombings of 7 July 2005. INQUEST intervened in the case (with Liberty and JUSTICE) and provided a witness statement arguing that a ‘secret inquest’ of the kind the Home Secretary pressed for in the judicial review would be unprecedented and has not been necessary in a variety of previous inquests which have managed to address concerns about the disclosure of highly sensitive material without excluding bereaved families.

Deborah Coles, Co-Director of INQUEST, said:

The Secretary of State’s challenge amounted to a fundamental attack on the independence and transparency of the coronial system in England and Walesand we welcome the Court’s rejection of this judicial review. Many contentious deaths raise important issues of state power and accountability and in a free democratic society such deaths should be subject to particularly close public scrutiny. For this reason it is imperative the inquest system is open and transparent so justice is seen to be done and public confidence in state bodies is upheld.

Bereaved families’ effective engagement with the coronial process is important not just to enable them to come to terms with their loss, but it also serves a vital public interest. It provides a counterweight to a tendency towards secrecy where deaths may have been avoidable, particularly where state agents are involved. One of the most important roles of an inquest, particularly in relation to contentious deaths, is the prevention of similar fatalities by identifying necessary improvements in public health and safety and the practices of public bodies.

If inquests take place behind closed doors it will be hard to allay any suspicions of wrongdoing and failures in the minds of bereaved families and the public at large.

Full reasons for the High Court’s decision have not yet been handed down and it is unclear whether the Home Secretary will appeal.

Notes to editors:

  1. Lady Justice Hallett ruled on 3 November that whilst she had the power to exclude the public from certain hearings in the interests of national security that did not include properly interested persons such as the bereaved families who were legally entitled to be represented at the inquests. The full ruling can be found on the coroner’s official website.
  2. The Home Secretary applied for a judicial review of that decision on 9 November 2010.  The claim was heard by Lord Justice Maurice Kay and Lord Justice Justice Stanley Burnton on 18 November 2010.
  3. INQUEST’s Co-Director Deborah Coles provided a witness statement in support of the joint third party intervention by INQUEST, JUSTICE and Liberty.  The witness statement drew on INQUEST and the INQUEST Lawyers Group’s collective experience of inquests into contentious deaths over thirty years and included detailed case studies of the practical alternatives to “secret inquests” that coroners have adopted.
  4. INQUEST is the only organisation in England and Wales that provides a specialist, comprehensive advice service on contentious deaths and their investigation to bereaved people, lawyers, other advice and support agencies, the media, parliamentarians and the wider public. INQUEST is represented on the Ministerial Council on Deaths in Custody and the Ministry of Justice Coroner Service Stakeholder Forum.
  5. INQUEST also co-ordinates the (ILG) which is a national network of over two hundred lawyers who are willing and able to provide preparation and legal representation for bereaved families. Membership is open to all lawyers who represent bereaved families. The ILG promotes and develops knowledge and expertise in the law and practice of inquests by providing training and acting as a forum for the exchange of ideas and experience.
  6. INQUEST was fully engaged in the legislative debates around proposed “secret inquests” during the passage of both the Counter Terrorism Bill 2008 and the Coroners and Justice Bill 2009. We met with concerned parliamentarians, produced detailed briefings on the proposals, gave written and verbal evidence to the Public Bill Committee on the Coroners and Justice Bill 2009 and conducted significant policy and parliamentary work on amendments to the Bills.