Royal jury 'inappropriate' for Diana inquest

Click to follow
The Independent Online

A jury made up of members of the royal household would be "inappropriate " for the inquest into Diana, Princess of Wales' death, Baroness Butler-Sloss decided today.

At the preliminary hearings at the High Court, Lady Butler-Sloss made the ruling after hearing legal argument.

The Queen's lawyer Sir John Nutting QC, argued that the public interest would be "best served" by choosing a panel of ordinary men and women.

A decision has not yet been taken as to whether a jury will be used for the high profile case.

Lady Butler-Sloss said she was able to make her decision today, adding that it would be inappropriate to have a Royal Household jury.

Lawyers for Mohamed al Fayed, whose son, Dodi Fayed, was killed in the crash with the Princess, argued for a jury made up of ordinary members of the public.

Lady Butler-Sloss also indicated that she would hold a joint inquest for Diana and Dodi, saying it would be "unbelievably expensive" and exhausting, as well as upsetting for the families, to have separate inquests.

"I would be expecting, if I did it at all, to be operating two concurrent inquests," she said.

The most important point upon which she had to decide was whether to call a jury, she added.

Diana was still part of the Royal Family when she died and her body lay in the chapel at St James's Palace before her funeral, meaning that under current legislation any jury would normally have to be made up of senior members of the Royal Household.

Ian Burnett QC, for the coroner, said if the inquest was to be heard by a jury made up of members of the public, Lady Butler-Sloss would have to transfer to Surrey Coroner's Court.

If she were to do so, she would no longer be running the inquest as Deputy Royal Coroner but as the straightforward Coroner of Surrey.

If she decides to sit without a jury, Lady Butler-Sloss could choose whether she wants to transfer or not, Mr Burnett said.

Lady Butler-Sloss said further preliminary hearings would be necessary to discuss the witnesses and the scope of the inquest, after expressing concerns that if boundaries were not agreed upon, the whole inquest could be brought to a halt.

She indicated that all interested persons involved in the inquest would be given a copy of the coroner's report - currently being completed by the Metropolitan Police.

There are likely to be at least 40 witnesses at the full inquest, the court heard.

Many of those giving evidence are expected to be French, and some of those are likely to appear by means of a video-link from Paris.

Princes William and Harry's hopes that the inquest would move "swiftly to a conclusion" were read out in court.

Lady Butler-Sloss read part of a letter from the Princes' private secretary, Jamie Lowther-Pinkerton, who was present.

It said: "It is their desire that the inquest should not only be open, fair and transparent, but that it should move swiftly to a conclusion."

A letter from Diana's sister, Lady Sarah McCorquodale, who was in court, was also read, saying that she shared the Princes' views.

The preliminary hearings started three years after the inquests first opened and nearly 10 years after Diana and her boyfriend were killed in a Paris car crash.

Also in court was the legal team for driver Henri Paul, who was also killed.

The Metropolitan Police report, which said the crash was a tragic accident, confirmed that Paul was drunk and driving at high speed at the time.

Lawyers for bodyguard Trevor Rees, the sole survivor, were also present.

Lady Butler-Sloss said: "I think that's one decision I can make today. I think it entirely inappropriate for me to ask for a jury from the royal household."

Sir John, the Queen's legal representative, said it would perhaps be " invidious" to have a panel made of senior members of the household.

He added: "We submit that in the particular circumstances of this case... that it would be undesirable, even perhaps invidious, to ask for such a jury."

Sir John went on: "We so submit not because we doubt the capacity to reach a fair and true verdict, but rather the principle that justice must not only be done but must be seen to be done."

Michael Mansfield QC criticised the timing of Lord Stevens' report into the crash, arguing that it should not have been released so publicly last month.

"It may have been more desirable to adopt a rather more judicial approach allowing the report to be dispersed to interested persons," he said.

The barrister suggested that all the information should have been withheld until it was revealed in the inquest or published afterwards.

But he conceded that that would only occur "in an ideal world".

Mr Mansfield said the Stevens inquiry had given the impression that the Diana case was now closed.

"The public, as well as national and international media, have regarded what is printed in the report as the final and the official verdict."

Edmund Lawson, for the Metropolitan Police, hit back at Mr Mansfield's "substantial public criticisms" and said appropriate legal advice had been taken.

"The Commissioner stands by the decision to publish the report," he said. "It was not a decision taken lightly."

Papers submitted to the inquest by Ian Burnett, counsel to the coroner, described as "tendentious" claims made on behalf of Mr al Fayed about the need for a jury.

"The suggestion that only a jury can engender public confidence may be thought to be tendentious," he said.