Law Report: Coroner was entitled to exclude evidence from inquest: Queen's Bench Divisional Court (Lord Justice Neill and Mr Justice Mantell), 9 July 1993

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Regina v H M Coroner for West Yorkshire (Eastern District), ex parte Clements.

Section 11(2) of the Coroners' Act 1988 gave coroners a discretion based on expediency to exclude evidence and to prevent inquiries which would increase the length and cost of the inquest and add to the jury's task.

The Queen's Bench Divisional Court dismissed an application by Elizabeth Bernadette Clements, for judicial review of the West Yorkshire coroner's conduct, in May 1991, of an inquest into the death of her son, Allan John Clifford Clements, who died in police custody at Leeds Bridewell on 8 March 1991. The jury, by an 8:2 majority, returned an open verdict.

Tim Owen (Ruth Bundy) for the applicant; Giles Kavanagh (Wakefield District Council Solicitor) for the respondent.

MR JUSTICE MANTELL said the deceased, who was 26, was arrested for failing to provide a speciment of breath and taken to the police station, where he was unco-operative and aggressive. He was placed in a cell reserved for difficult or violent prisoners. It was out of sight and hearing of the duty officers, but he was visited every half hour.

He was later found suspended from a noose made out of his trousers, which had been attached to the top bar of the cell gate. The pathologist's evidence was that he died of asphyxia due to hanging.

The appellant was suspicious and thought her son might have died as a result of police misconduct, for which the apparent hanging was a cover-up. It seemed that on 7 March another prisoner, Sean Goodyear, had attempted to hang himself in another of the 'cooler' cells. At the inquest, it became apparent that her suspicions were ill-founded. A second pathologist had confirmed the first's opinion, thus effectively excluding the possibility of foul play.

But the applicant's solicitor, Miss Bundy, sought to investigate the possibility that there had been some want of care by the police, who had been put on notice that such a thing might happen by the Sean Goodyear incident. She asked the coroner to call Goodyear as a witness. But the coroner refused to do so, or to allow any questions about that incident, on the ground that it was irrelevant.

When summing up, the coroner directed the jury there were three possible verdicts: suicide, accidental death or an open verdict. Miss Bundy asked him to give a direction on 'lack of care', which he did. One of the grounds of the present application was that he had misdirected the jury on 'lack of care'.

His Lordship rather agreed with the coroner's original view that such a direction was unneccessary and inappropriate, but in any case the direction given gave no ground for complaint. It made plain that the jury could consider whether or not the surrounding circumstances of the death gave rise to any criticism of the police for lack of care and offered them the fullest scope to attach whatever comment they thought appropriate to any verdict they brought in.

It was also argued that the Sean Goodyear incident was relevant and the coroner was wrong to refuse to call Goodyear or permit questions about the incident. But it did not relate to some distinct act or omission which was closely and directly associated with the death, as its cause or one of its causes.

The coroner was perfectly entitled to exclude the evidence on the ground that it was irrelevant. But even if if had some marginal relevance, section 11(2) of the 1988 Act provided that 'The coroner shall . . . examine on oath concerning the death all persons who tender evidence as to the facts of the death and all persons having knowledge of those facts whom he considers it expedient to examine.'

That gave the coroner a discretion based on expediency. Even taking a different view on relevance, it seemed the coroner was not wrong in refusing to permit a wide-ranging inquiry which would have added considerably to the length and cost of the inquest, and unnecessarily to the jury's task.