R (on the application of Secretary of State for the Home Department) v HM Coroner for Inner West London
Reference:  EWHC 3098 (Admin)
Court: Divisional Court
Judge: Maurice Kay and Stanley Burnton LJJ
Date of judgment: 30 Nov 2010
Summary: Open justice - Coroners inquests - Private hearings - National security - Terrorism - Meaning of "the public" in r.17 Coroners Rules 1984 - s.8(3) Coroners Act 1988
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Instructing Solicitors: Treasury Solicitor for the Claimant; In-house solicitor for the Defendant; Anthony Gold, Kingsley Napley, Sonn Macmillan Walker, Hogan Lovells, and Russell Jones & Walker for interested parties
The Secretary of State applied for judicial review of a decision of Hallett LJ, sitting as Assistant Deputy Coroner for West London, not to conduct part of the inquests into the deaths of the victims of the 7 July 2005 bombings as a closed hearing to the exclusion of the bereaved families and their legal representatives. The Coroner had stated during the inquest that she would be inquiring into the preventability of the bombings, including whether there had been failings by the security service and police force to properly investigate and assess the intelligence. The Coroner had ruled that while such sensitive material from the security service could be dealt with at a hearing from which the public would be excluded, she could not exclude interested parties and their legal representatives, including the bereaved families.
The issue for determination was the construction of Rule 17 of the Coroners Rules 1984, which provides that “Every inquest shall be held in public: Provided the Coroner may direct that the public be excluded from an inquest or any part of an inquest if he considers that it would be in the interests of national security to do so.”
Whether Rule 17 of the Coroners Rules 1984 empowers the Coroner to exclude properly interested persons and their legal representatives from part of an inquest
Dismissing the application:
The Coroner’s construction of r.17 had been correct. In reaching her conclusion, the Coroner had taken account of other parts of the Coroners Rules which conferred ‘absolute rights’ on properly interested persons in mandatory language. The were some limited conditions and exceptions, but none in relation to national security or by reference to r.17. The first sentence of r.17 recognised the fundamental principle of legal proceedings, namely that they should be public unless there was good reason for them not to be.
What was particularly persuasive was that r.17 applied equally to inquests where there was or was not a jury. This raised the obvious question of how a closed procedure could possibly operate with a randomly-selected jury. It could not have been contemplated that a properly interested person and his legal representative would be excluded while a jury saw and heard closed material. Parliament would not have created a procedure with such exceptional consequences in the absence of clear language to that effect.
The fact that inquests were an inquisitorial process and different in kind to adversarial civil or criminal litigation did not entail that there would be any relaxation or derogation from the principle of open justice, unless expressly provided for by Parliament.