The decision by Baroness Butler-Sloss to hear inquests into the deaths of Diana, Princess of Wales and Dodi Fayed without a jury will no doubt fan the fires of conspiracy surrounding the fateful Paris car crash of 31 August 1997.
But, in giving reasons for exercising her discretion in favour of a judge-only inquiry, the deputy coroner to the Royal Household has also helped to clarify the role of the coroner in the investigation of deaths of public interest.
Before 1925 all inquests had to be heard by a jury. It was only with the introduction of the Coroners (Amendment) Act of that year that coroners were allowed to sit alone. Since 1988 there are only four circumstances when the coroner must summon a jury. These are: a death in prison; a death caused by a police officer; where the death raises clear issues concerning health and safety at work; or where there is a possible continuing risk to public safety.
Civil rights campaigners have argued that these verdicts severely restrict juries who wish to provide more substantive reasons in support of their findings. The Government has recognised the force of this argument and has proposed changing the law to allow more juries to bring back "narrative verdicts" which establish flexible terms upon which to describe the circumstances of a death.
As long ago as 1994 Sir Thomas Bingham, the then Master of the Rolls, saw merit in permitting juries to return verdicts supported by explanations, a proposition he expanded on in 2004 when, as Lord Bingham of Corn-hill, he was the senior law lord.
Such a formula, argue lawyers for Mohamed al-Fayed, the father of Dodi, would lend itself to the inquests being considered at last week's preliminary hearing. But Lady Butler-Sloss saw these arguments as more beguiling than persuasive. She countered that even a narrative verdict would be restrictive and incapable of doing justice to the public interest:
"In my view it would be an almost impossible task to ask them [the jury] the limited number of questions appropriate to a narrative verdict and in that way satisfy the continuing immense public interest in the outcome of the inquests," she said in her 30-page judgment.
Specifically Lady Butler-Sloss referred to Coroner's Rules 36 and 42 which prohibit expressions of opinion and determination of criminal or civil liability. In particular, she said, neither she herself nor a jury would be allowed to tackle allegations of criminal or civil liability. Lady Butler-Sloss, the former head of the family division of the High Court, added: . . . a narrative verdict of, say, three pages would, in my view, be seen as an inadequate response to this continuing intense interest across the world. A long dissertation by the jury would be entirely inappropriate, even taking into account the broader approach advocated by the House of Lords.
She said that, while she could see the advantages of calling a "jury of ordinary citizens" to make an impartial decision on the facts disclosed in the inquests, the effect of the intense public interest can be " prayed in aid" both for and against the calling of a jury. In conclusion she ruled against a jury:
Ihavenodoubtthattheseinquestsrequire the reasoned decision of a deputy coroner in preference to giving the jury the opportunity to give a narrative verdict.Reuse content