Briefing: Death of a princess - let the inquest finally begin

Ten years after the Princess of Wales and Dodi Fayed died in Paris, all the evidence surrounding the events of that night will be considered by a jury
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The Independent Online

Who would have dreamt it would take so long? After 10 years, the inquests into the deaths of Diana, Princess of Wales, and Dodi Fayed will finally begin on Tuesday. Cue mass media hysteria and plenty more claims from Mohamed Al Fayed that his son and the princess were murdered in a conspiracy involving the Duke of Edinburgh, MI5 and MI6.

Why has it taken a decade to get going?

First the French had to be given a stab at investigating that car crash on 31 August 1997, which took until late 2003. By then the first coroner, John Burton, had already called it a day, retiring in 2002. Number two, Michael Burgess, who was coroner of both the Queen's Household and Surrey, kicked off the inquest in early 2004. But he quickly adjourned to give our police force its bite at the Diana cherry. By the time Lord Stevens of Kirkwhelpington got round to publishing his report, codenamed Operation Paget, last December, Mr Burgess had decided he was too busy to commit, handing the coroner's reins to Baroness Butler-Sloss. But by April, Lady Butler-Sloss decided she lacked the expertise to handle such a high-profile hearing and she too stepped down. Pity poor Lord Justice Scott Baker, then, who as coroner number four has the thankless task of eventually investigating the deaths.

Where will the sparks be flying?

The place to be is Court 73 at the Royal Courts of Justice on the Strand, in London, although space will be at a premium. As well as 11 jurors, the courtroom will have to accommodate the six interested parties, who range from the parents of the chauffeur, Henri Paul, to the president of the Ritz Hotel in Paris, to the Spencer family's executor and Diana's sister, Lady Sarah McCorquodale, and, of course, Mr Al Fayed, the Harrods owner. Thank goodness, then, for the spillover tent in the courtyard from where up to 300 members of the public and reporters can watch events.

Who will help to shed light on what happened in the Pont d'Alma tunnel?

Anyone who had even a passing connection to either Diana or Dodi, plus all those linked to that night in some way from the paparazzi to the French emergency services. The legal team for the Harrods owner alone has requested 68 witnesses. Mr Fayed is aiming high: at the Queen no less, although the chance of her giving evidence in her own court is slim to non-existent. The coroner has said the court will pore over issues, including whether the princess was pregnant and engaged to Dodi; the embalming of her body; her fears for her life; and whether the British security services or any other security services had any involvement in the collision.

How long will it drag on for?

The potential jurors have been told to block out their diaries until at least Easter. On Tuesday morning Lord Justice Baker will select by ballot the 11 Britons he deems to be the least compromised. They can then look forward to a chauffeur service from their front doors to the Strand and back again from Monday to Thursday for the next six or so months.

What is the inquest likely to conclude?

Although inquests, which are held as a matter of course when someone dies a violent, unnatural or sudden death, are meant to be limited fact-finding inquiries to establish who died, where, when and how, this one will inevitably be different. Yet given that previous investigations have failed to find anyone bar a drunken Mr Paul to blame, it is hard to see just how different this inquest will be. Mr Fayed's wildest dreams of fingering "the Establishment" for the deaths could prove to be simply that – just dreams.