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Law Report: Marchioness coroner's bias 'could not be discounted': R v Inner West London Coroner Ex parte Dallaglio and another, CA, (Sir Thomas Bingham, Master of the Rolls, Lord Justice Farquharson and Lord Justice Simon Brown), 10 June 1994

There was a real danger that the coroner conducting the inquests into the deaths resulting from the Marchioness disaster had unconsciously but unfairly regarded with disfavour the case of relatives who wished the inquests to be resumed three years after the disaster when he had described one relative as 'unhinged' and others as 'mentally unwell'.

The Court of Appeal allowed an appeal by the applicants, Eileen Dallaglio and Margaret Lockwood Croft, from the Queen's Bench Divisional Court's dismissal of their application for judicial review of decisions by the coroner, Dr Paul Knapman, on 22 July 1992, not to recuse himself from the conduct of the inquests into 51 deaths following the collision of the dredger Bowbelle and the pleasure cruiser Marchioness on 20 August 1989 and not to resume the inquests after an adjournment pending criminal proceedings.

The applicants, the parents of two who died, complained of apparent bias on the coroner's part. They relied on a meeting in which the coroner met two journalists and described the second applicant as 'unhinged', and his view that some members of the Marchioness Action Group were mentally unwell.

Daniel Brennan QC (Pannone & Partners); Terence Munyard (Christian Fisher & Co) for the applicants; Jeremy Sullivan QC and Paul Stinchcombe (Westminster City Council Solicitor) for the coroner.

LORD JUSTICE SIMON BROWN said the test to be applied when a decision was impugned on the ground of apparent bias whether there was a real danger of bias by the decision- maker: R v Gough (1993) AC 646. Any court seized of a challenge on the ground of apparent bias must ascertain the relevant circumstances and consider all the evidence for itself so as to reach its own conclusion on the facts. In reaching its conclusion the court 'personifies the reasonable man'.

The question for the court was: was there a real danger of injustice having occurred as a result of bias? A real danger clearly involved more than a minimal risk, less than a probability.

Injustice would have occurred as a result of bias if 'the decision- maker unfairly regarded with disfavour the case of a party to the issue under consideration'. 'Unfairly regarded with disfavour' meant 'was pre-disposed or prejudiced against one party's case for reasons unconnected with the merits of the issue'.

Where, as here, any suggestion of actual bias was disavowed, the court must ask whether there was a real danger that the coroner unfairly, though unconsciously, regarded with disfavour the case of those seeking a resumption of the inquest. For a judicial officer to say publicly of someone that they were unreliable because unhinged showed an appearance of bias: such a description was not merely injudicious and insensitive but bound to be interpreted as a gratuitous insult. The real possibility that the coroner unconsciously allowed himself to be influenced against the applicants by a feeling of hostility towards them could not be discounted.

The decisions would be quashed and the matter remitted to a different coroner for a fresh decision as to whether to resume the inquests. The case served as a reminder to all judicial officers of the almost invariable unwisdom of ever talking to the press about any aspect of current legal proceedings.