Baby P killer 'would be forced to give evidence at inquest'

Click to follow
The Independent Online

One of the men responsible for causing the death of Baby P would be forced to give evidence at an inquest into his death, a coroner said today.

Steven Barker, the sadistic boyfriend of Peter Connelly's mother Tracey, remained silent both while on trial for murder, a charge on which he was cleared, and a later trial for raping a two-year-old girl.

If an inquest goes ahead, he would finally have to answer questions about the toddler's final moments, however.

Peter was 17 months old when he died in Tottenham, north London, at the hands of Barker, his mother and Barker's brother, Jason Owen, in August 2007.

All three were subsequently jailed for causing or allowing his death. Barker was also convicted of the sex attack on the girl.

Peter had suffered more than 50 injuries despite receiving 60 visits from social workers, doctors and police over an eight-month period.

North London coroner Andrew Walker, presiding over a hearing to determine whether or not an inquest should go ahead, would have the power to compel Barker to give evidence.

He told the pre-inquest review in High Barnet he could do so as long as Barker was found to be a "competent" witness, and added: "It seems to me he would be required, as would any other witness, to answer questions from this court."

It was disclosed as the hearing took place today that neither Barker nor Connelly would be granted legal aid for an inquest.

They had appealed against a decision not to grant them public funding, but that has now been rejected, the Legal Services Commission said.

Bernard Richmond, representing Barker on a pro bono basis, said his client would need to receive legal advice and help to write a statement if he was to give evidence.

It was argued during the hearing that any such inquest could be at a huge cost to the public purse, and that all salient facts have already emerged during investigations into Peter's care.

Hugh Davies, representing the Metropolitan Police, said the inquest would cost "many millions of pounds". The hearing was also told it could last about 20 weeks, or 40 weeks if a jury was to hear the evidence.

But Mr Walker said: "For any inquest that has many issues to be considered, it is going to take time, but that is not a fact that should restrict or interfere with a decision on whether there is sufficient cause for it."

Peter's father, who cannot be named for legal reasons, is keen for an inquest to take place so he can finally find out exactly what happened to his son, the Coroner's Court was told.

His barrister, Julien Foster, said he wants to know how his son ended up "living a life of filth in squalor" with bruises and fungal infections, and yet was allowed to stay in his mother's care and deemed to be "happy and well-groomed".

Mr Foster told the coroner that his client "entirely accepts that he, by asking you to take this course, is putting himself up for criticism", and is happy to do so.

"He has asked himself many times if there is more he could have done to prevent the death of his son," said Mr Foster. "But he also says, at the risk of sounding naive, he would rather face criticism if the process would help to save any child's life in the future."

The coroner said the extent to which neglect by external agencies played a part in Peter's death would influence his decision, and asked: "Would it be sufficient cause to resume the inquest if it was argued that the cause of death was contributed to by neglect on the part of other agencies?"

Last week a catalogue of failings by the agencies involved in Baby P's care was laid bare with the publication of previously secret official reports.

The second serious case review concluded Peter's "horrifying death could and should have been prevented" and that he "deserved better from the services which were there to protect him".

Lawyers representing Peter's GP, Jerome Ikwueke, and Haringey Council both argued that there is no need for an inquest due to the independent inquiries which have already concluded, saying a further hearing would duplicate evidence previously heard.

On that point, Mr Davies agreed, saying: "There is in fact no probability of further new facts of significance that would emerge, were this inquest to resume.""

But Mr Foster added: "We are beyond the point of ensuring justice is done. It is now at the point of justice being seen to be done."

Mr Richmond said he was not arguing "for or against" an inquest on Barker's behalf. The local NHS also said through its legal representatives that it took a neutral stance.

The coroner adjourned the case until November 30, when he will announce whether or not an inquest will go ahead.