Inquiry into conduct of coroners is reopened

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The Independent Online
AN investigation into complaints of professional misconduct against two coroners has been re- opened by the Home Office after allegations that its original inquiries were perfunctory and missed important evidence.

The about-turn came less than two months after officials said they would take no action over claims that the coroners failed to obtain evidence suggesting that a young abseiling instructor died because his safety equipment failed.

Jeremy Turner, 27, fell about 100ft (30m) while teaching a group of management trainees to abseil in Gwynedd, North Wales, in 1989. The inquest was opened in August of that year by Peter Brunton, coroner for Aberystwyth. But Mr Brunton discovered subsequently that Mr Turner's employer, Celmi Experience Ltd, was a client of his, and passed the file to one of his colleagues, Donald Jones, coroner for Meirionnydd.

When the inquest resumed in November 1989, Mr Jones recorded a verdict of death by misadventure, saying that Mr Turner had detached his safety equipment and was responsible for his own death. But following the inquest, Mr Turner's father, Geoffrey, discovered witnesses who said they had seen a safety-line trailing from his son as he fell, indicating that the equipment might have failed. They had not been called to give evidence.

He was also advised that a jury should have been empanelled, a point later accepted by Mr Jones, who agreed that the verdict should be quashed and a new inquest held.

That second inquest took place last year in Denbigh, North Wales. An open verdict was returned, with the new coroner, Brian Lewis, saying: 'I am quite satisfied that insufficient inquiries were made at the time.'

The Home Office dismissed Geoffrey Turner's claims that both Mr Brunton and Mr Jones should be disciplined for failing to obtain all the available evidence. His call for Mr Brunton to be disciplined for allegedly representing Celmi at the resumed hearing after opening the inquest as coroner was referred to the Solicitors' Complaints Bureau. In his response, which the Home Office accepted, Mr Brunton said he had not known Jeremy Turner was working for Celmi when he opened the inquest and as soon as he found out a few days later, he took no further part in the investigation.

He could not therefore be blamed for any failure to obtain or pass on evidence. Further, he has told the bureau that he did not represent the company at the resumed inquest, but sat in the public gallery. It has now emerged that the Home Office never obtained a transcript of important testimony given by the coroner's officer, Sergeant Roger Garraway, at the second inquest before making its decision. According to Sgt Garraway, Mr Brunton had told him that he could not act as coroner 'just prior to the first inquest', held on 22 November. In his response to the Home Office, Mr Brunton said he told Sgt Garraway on 4 or 5 September. The Home Office suggested it would take 'no action' against Mr Jones since his decisions had been reviewed by the High Court. Geoffrey Turner claimed this argument was flawed: the High Court had only reviewed one of the allegations against Mr Jones (that he had failed to empanel a jury) and was, therefore, not in a position to establish whether any further review was necessary.

This week, at a meeting with Mr Turner's MP, Barry Sheerman, who expressed concern about the thoroughness of the original Home Office inquiries, officials said the case had been reopened.

Asked if he accepted responsibility for any failure to make full inquiries at the first inquest, Mr Jones said: 'I would point out that the first duty of any experienced instructor would be to examine and test his equipment prior to using them. I do not therefore accept responsibility for any failure to make sufficient inquiries.'

Mr Brunton did not respond to questions about the inquest.

(Photograph omitted)