UK: Inquests: Directions To The Jury

Last Updated: 1 May 2009

R (on the application of D) v Inner South London Assistant Deputy Coroner [2008] EWHC 3356 (Admin) Date of judgment: 3 December 2008

Article by Anand Doobay, Partner and Jo Dimmock, Associate in the Fraud and Regulatory Department, Peters & Peters Solicitors

Background

The claimant was the mother of John Charles de Menezes ("Mr de Menezes") who was shot and killed by police firearms officers. At an inquest into the death, the coroner ruled that a potential verdict of unlawful killing could not be left to the jury. This left the jury with only two available verdicts;

  1. an open verdict and;
  2. lawful killing.

The coroner additionally gave the jury a questionnaire with a series of questions to indicate which of the factors set out contributed to the death of Mr de Menezes. The jury could only answer in the boxes labelled "Yes", "No" or "Cannot Decide". The coroner refused an application by the claimant's representatives who proposed that certain additional questions should be put to the jury. The claimant contended that the jury should additionally have been asked whether they had identified any other factors which they considered had more than a minimal causal contribution to the death of Mr de Menezes, if so what they were and whether they had any additional comments to make including clarifying their conclusions on any particular factor or expressing their view on the gravity of any failing found.

The claimant challenged the decision by way of judicial review and contended that without the additional questions the jury would be unduly limited in their ability to return their conclusions as to how Mr de Menezes died.

Issues before the Court

The issue for the Court was whether the inquest, in light of the questions which the coroner agreed could be put to the jury, satisfied the obligation under Article 2 of European Convention on Human Rights to carry out a properly conducted official investigation into Mr de Menezes' death.

Decision

The High Court held that six factors individually and cumulatively led to the conclusion that the claimant's application should be dismissed.

First, the verdicts left for the jury and the questions put to them satisfied the requirements in s.11(5)(b)(ii) of the Coroners Act 1988 and Rule 36(1)(b) of the Coroner Rules 1984, SI 1984/552, by enabling the jury to ascertain 'by what means and in what circumstances' Mr de Menezes met his death. Further, the verdict in the present case would provide more information than was sought from and given by juries in previous cases where the obligation under Article 2 ECHR was held to have been satisfied. For example, in other cases only one verdict had been left to the jury or no questions had been asked of them.

Second, the High Court was not referred to any authority in which it was held that specific questions were required to be asked of a jury over and above asking them 'by what means and in what circumstances' the deceased died.

Third, the Coroner has a discretion 'to decide how best in the particular case to elicit the jury's conclusion on the central issue'. The only ground to interfere with this discretion would, therefore, be on Wednesbury principles of unreasonableness. The approach adopted by the Coroner in this case could not be said to be Wednesbury unreasonable.

Fourth, there was a substantial risk that if the jury were required to ask the additional questions posed by the claimant's representatives, they would contravene rule 36(2) and 42 of the Coroner's Rules 1984 which respectively state that the inquest shall be directed at ascertaining who the deceased was and how, when and where he came to his death and, that no verdict shall be framed so as to appear to determine any question of criminal liability on the part of a named person or civil liability.

Fifth, there was a risk that the jury would return contradictory and conflicting findings if the additional questions were put.

Sixth, it was established law that the decision of the Coroner, on how to elicit the jury's factual conclusions, should not be disturbed by the Courts unless strong grounds had been shown. In this case the claimant failed to satisfy this burden.

Comment

The inquest for Mr de Menezes highlights the deficiencies in the inquest system, in particular the inadequacy of both the short form and narrative verdicts.

The decision as to whether to remove a verdict from the jury or allow the jury to return a narrative or short form verdict is part of the discretion of the Coroner. The High Court's decision in this case demonstrates that, even where a narrative verdict is available, the jury's conclusions as to how death occurred can be restricted to answering only those questions the Coroner decides it relevant to ask.

Following the coroner's decision to remove the verdict of unlawful killing, the family of the deceased withdrew from the inquest. The jury ultimately returned an open verdict and answered the questions posed by the coroner in a manner which was inconsistent with the account of lawful killing given by officers who testified at the inquest.

Unfortunately, the public may have been left with the impression from this widely reported case that the inquest system is capable of fettering the freedom of the jury to deliver an appropriate verdict.

The Coroners' and Justice Bill, which is undergoing Parliamentary scrutiny, is supposed to reform the coronial system. However, the proposals in the Bill would not deal with the controversial issues raised by this case.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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