Al Fayed wins battle to force Diana hearings to be heard in public

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Mohammed Al Fayed has won his legal battle to ensure that the preliminary hearings ahead of the inquest into the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, will be held in public.

The retired judge presiding over the hearings has reversed her earlier decision to restrict access. Lady Butler-Sloss, the former head of the family division of the High Court, said the huge public interest surrounding the death had persuaded her to exercise her discretion in favour of public hearings.

Mohamed Al Fayed, the father of Diana's lover, Dodi, who was also killed in the 1997 Paris car crash, had threatened legal action over the matter. Last night he welcomed the decision, but said he would not tolerate attempts to conceal the truth.

"I'm encouraged by this decision, although regret it only came about as a result of threat of legal action," the Harrods owner said. "The public and I have a right to know how my son and Diana, Princess of Wales, were really killed on that awful night." He added: "I will not tolerate further attempts to sweep dirt under the carpet."

A spokesman for the Judicial Communications Office said Lady Butler-Sloss sent a letter to interested parties outlining her change of mind. "She has discretion in the matter and was persuaded that the strong public interest in the cases justified the meeting being held in open court," he said.

A preliminary hearing due to open in January will consider whether a jury will sit on the full inquest, which was always to be held in public. If so, it would be made up of members of the Royal Household, as Diana was still considered a member of the Royal Family when she died. Lady Butler-Sloss will also decide on whether the inquests will be held jointly.

Diana, who was 36, and 42-year-old Dodi, died on 31 August 1997, when the car they were travelling in hit a pillar in the Pont de L'Alma tunnel. A French investigation blamed their driver, Henri Paul, for driving at high speed while drunk. Lord Stevens's investigation into their deaths is due out next week. Mr Al Fayed said he feared "critical questions" will still have been avoided in the Stevens report.

The January hearings will take place at the Royal Courts of Justice. The inquests into Diana and Dodi's deaths were first opened and adjourned in January 2004, when the Royal Coroner Michael Burgess asked the Metropolitan Police to investigate the car crash.

Lady Butler-Sloss took on the high-profile task of overseeing the inquests when Mr Burgess quit due to the heavy workload this summer. The full inquest will be held at a later stage, but the venue has yet to be decided.

Last month, the Department of Constitutional Affairs denied that there had been any attempt to hold the inquest into the two deaths in secret.

A statement read: "The Coroners Rules 1984 state that every inquest should be held in public, provided that 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 interest of national security. There is no statutory requirement for pre-inquest hearings to be held in public as they are not part of the inquest."

A decade of uncertainy

* 31 August 1997 Diana killed in a car accident in the Pont de l'Alma tunnel in Paris, along with Dodi Al-Fayed and their driver Henri Paul. She was taken to the Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital where she died at 4am.

* 6 September 1997 Her funeral was watched by over 1 billion people worldwide.

* 3 September 1999 Official French report concludes Henri Paul was driving at excessive speed under the influence of prescription drugs and alcohol.

* 9 November 1999 Mohamed Al Fayed loses his court battle to take part in the inquest.

* 7 January 2004 Sir John Stevens, the Metropolitan Police commissioner, confirma he will lead the inquiry.

* 22 July 2006 Michael Burgess, the coroner who was scheduled to hear the inquests into the deaths, withdraws blaming a heavy workload.

* September 2006 Lady Butler-Sloss is first tipped to take charge of inquests.

* 6 January 2007 Preliminary inquest hearings due to begin.