Inquest victory for Marchioness families

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The Independent Online

The Government is under renewed pressure to grant a public inquiry into the Marchioness disaster after an inquest jury returned a verdict of unlawful killing yesterday.

Families in the court gasped, wept and hugged each other as the majority verdict was announced and Barbara Davies, whose son Jonathan survived the disaster, punched the air in triumph.

The six women and four men of the jury took four hours to reach their verdict. They said that the 51 victims of the disaster had died by drowning "as the result of a collision between the passenger launch Marchioness and the motor vessel Bowbelle on the River Thames between Southwark Bridge and Cannon Street railway bridge. "Both vessels were travelling down river in the central channel. Neither vessel was aware of the other until it was too late to take avoiding action and their paths converged."

The jury, who said they had been "profoundly moved" by the evidence over the last four weeks, provided a list of 12 recommendations which the coroner, Dr John Burton, said he would send to the Department of Transport. They included legislation for blood alcohol levels for seamen on duty.

An inquest verdict of unlawful killing must prove beyond reasonable doubt that a duty of care had been breached and that breach amounted to manslaughter by gross negligence.

The coroner told the jury that such verdicts cannot be inconsistent with previous legal proceedings. Lawyers acting for Douglas Henderson, master of the Bowbelle, insisted that the verdict of unlawful killing "cannot and does not relate to Captain Henderson or South Coast Shipping", the company which operated the dredger. Captain Henderson was acquitted after juries in two trials were unable to agree verdicts on a charge of failing to keep a proper lookout.

South Coast Shipping faced a private prosecution for corporate manslaughter which was thrown out by a magistrate at the committal stage.

Crown Prosecution Service lawyers will now study a transcript of the inquest to see if further action can be taken. Captain Henderson's solicitor, Michael Caplan, said: "My client was interviewed at length immediately after the collision by the police and the Marine Accidents Investigation Branch and gave them every assistance.

"He has had to go through two criminal trials and attended the inquest on two occasions. He and his wife have been placed under intense strain since the tragedy and I believe they have acted with dignity."

Labour's transport spokesman, Michael Meacher, called for a public inquiry, a ministerial statement and a full day's debate on "the implications of the disaster" when Parliament resumes after Easter. He said: "Since the inquest verdict is confined solely to the narrow issue of ascertaining the precise cause of death, a public inquiry is now urgently needed to examine the wider policy issues and lessons that should be learnt from this tragic and unnecessary disaster." Simon Hughes, Liberal Democrat MP for Southwark and Bermondsey, whose constituency covers the site of the collision, said the jury's verdict "vindicates the battle of the families to have a proper inquest...".

Louise Christian, solicitor for the families, said there should be a statutory right to a public inquiry so it is not up to the Government of the day ... whose record may be in question."