Relatives of Shipman victims win right to public inquiry

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Relatives of the victims of the serial killer Harold Shipman won their High Court battle yesterday for a public inquiry into why the GP was left free to kill.

Relatives of the victims of the serial killer Harold Shipman won their High Court battle yesterday for a public inquiry into why the GP was left free to kill.

In an embarrassing rebuff, two judges at the Royal Courts of Justice ordered that Alan Milburn, the Secretary of State for Health, reconsider his decision that proceedings be held in private, which, they said, was "irrational".

The ruling that Mr Milburn was in contravention of the European Convention of Human Rights by ordering private proceedings now makes it virtually impossible for the minister to provide anything less than a full public inquiry, unless he lodges a successful appeal.

More than 100 relatives have been campaigning since May to force the inquiry into the open and so "restore faith and confidence in GPs and the NHS".

Lord Justice Kennedy sitting with Mr Justice Jackson said there were "powerful considerations" in favour of an open inquiry: the scale of the tragedy, the normal governmental reaction to tragedy of such a scale, uncertainty about who Shipman's victims were and worries about why his crimes were not detected sooner.

A public inquiry would also make witnesses less tempted to exaggerate or pass blame and publicity could bring valuable information. Openness would also breed confidence.

Mr Milburn said a private hearing would spare relatives the ordeal of giving evidence in public and allow the implementation of recommendations to be quick.

But his decision contravened Article 10 of the Human Rights Convention by constituting "unjustified governmental interference with the reception of information that others wish or may be willing to impart".

The judgment was delayed so that 113 families representing 55 known and suspected victims could reach court. The families, who have formed the Tameside Families Support Group, were told that the inquiry chairman, Lord Laming, must re-examine his decision not to allow them legal representation.

Shipman, 54, was convicted in January of murdering 15 of his patients at Hyde, Greater Manchester.

Judy Lang, whose late mother Margaret Waldron was a patient of Shipman, said: "It is a positive outcome, a positive step forward. The truth can come out - there are no stones to crawl under."

The inquiry has already got under way in private and was originally due to report in September but has not yet heard any evidence, pending the outcome of the court challenge.

The Greater Manchester coroner, Dr John Pollard, is also unlikely to go ahead as planned next month with 23 inquests into the death of suspected Shipman victims until the inquiry is concluded.

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