Coroner in Diana inquest steps down blaming workload

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The coroner due to hear the inquests into the deaths of Diana, Princess of Wales and her lover, Dodi Fayed, announced last night he was unable to continue presiding over the case.

The royal coroner, Michael Burgess, decided to pull out of the inquests after "giving the matter a lot of thought", a spokeswoman said. Mr Burgess, who is also the coroner for Surrey, blamed his decision on a "heavy and constant workload" arising out of an increasing number of deaths in the county.

Almost from the point that news that the princess and Mr Fayed had died in a car crash in Paris in 1997, conspiracy theories have abounded, the majority revolving around the as yet unfounded suggestion that the crash was deliberately orchestrated.

The British inquest has been delayed because of a lengthy investigation in France, but was finally opened by Mr Burgess in 2004. At that time, he ordered the former Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Lord Stevens, to gather evidence for the inquest, which was expected to resume at some point next year.

Last night, Mr Burgess' spokeswoman said the coroner had wanted to pass on responsibility for the inquest before Sir John's completed his inquiry. "The cases will demand a good deal of time and a clear focus, free of distractions and, consequently, Mr Burgess has concluded that these two cases cannot properly be dealt with by a coroner who also has a heavy and constant workload of other cases with which to deal."

A retired judge, or a senior member of the judiciary, is most likely to take over the role, Mr Burgess' spokeswoman said.

A Scotland Yard spokesman, speaking for Lord Stevens said: "We are aware of the coroner's decision, but we don't believe it will affect our work... We are looking forward to working with whoever is appointed to replace him."

Lord Stevens' team have now amassed more than 1,500 statements from witnesses across the world during his investigations.

It was reported last night that his interim findings will be released in three months, and will conclude that the crash was a simple accident caused by chauffeur Henri Paul driving too fast and that Diana was not, as some reports have had it, pregnant, nor planning an engagement to marry Mr Fayed.

The desire to hear any new evidence Lord Stevens' team has unearthed is shared both by sceptics who subscribe to the belief that the two died as a result of a tragic accident and those who believe that darker forces were at play when their car crashed as it drove through the Pont d'Alma tunnel.