Law Report: No bias by 'Marchioness' coroner: Regina v HM Coroner for Inner West London, ex parte Perks and others. Queen's Bench Divisional Court (Lord Justice Neill and Mr Justice Mantell), 9 July 1993

The coroner charged with conducting inquests into the deaths of victims of the Marchioness disaster did not display apparent bias towards the relatives of the victims in deciding not to resume the inquests three years later, notwithstanding that he had described one of them as 'unhinged'.

The Queen's Bench Divisional Court refused an application by Mrs Eileen Dallaglio and Mrs Margaret Lockwood Croft for judicial review of decisions by Dr Paul Anthony Knapman, Her Majesty's Coroner for Inner West London, on 22 July 1992, whereby he (a) declined to recuse himself and the Assistant Coroner from further conduct of the inquests into the deaths of Francesca Dallaglio and Shaun Lockwood Croft, who were among the 51 who died in a collision between the dredger Bowbelle and the pleasure cruiser Marchioness on 20 August 1989, and (b) decided not to resume the inquests into their deaths after an adjournment pending criminal proceedings and other inquiries.

Daniel Brennan QC and Charles Haddon-Cave (Pannone & Partners) for the applicants; Jeremy Sullivan QC and Paul Stinchcombe (Westminster City Council) for the respondents.

LORD JUSTICE NEILL said the applicants alleged apparent (rather than actual) bias, relying on the following facts.

(a) The coroner complained to the Press Complaints Commission about an article in the Mail on Sunday in which Mrs Lockwood Croft criticised the coroner and (i) his decision to remove the hands from 26 of the 51 bodies of those who died in the disaster, apparently for identification purposes; (ii) the fact that relatives were prevented from viewing the bodies; and (iii) families were not told about the removal of the hands.

(b) In a meeting with journalists over his complaint, the coroner referred to Mrs Lockwood Croft as 'unhinged'.

(c) At the same meeting, the coroner showed the journalists photographs of Mrs Lockwood Croft's son Shaun's body, without seeking her permission.

(d) He faxed a list of the bodies whose hands had been removed to a survivor without seeking permission from their families.

These circumstances were said to give rise to the reasonable impression of bias on the coroner's part in relation to the applicants and other relatives.

In his affidavit, the coroner denied all recollection of using the word 'unhinged' of Mrs Lockwood Croft, for whom he had great sympathy, but added that, if he had, it would have been 'an accurate lay description' of the view he had formed of her psychological state as 'a person who had suffered a tragic and traumatic loss'.

The question for their Lordships, applying the test laid down in R v Gough (the Independent, 26 May 1993; (1993) 2 WLR 883), was whether there was a real danger that, in deciding not to recuse himself and not to resume the inquests, the coroner was influenced, consciously or unconsciously, to a material degree by his views about Mrs Lockwood Croft's psychological state and the Marchioness Action Group in general?

Anyone who had studied the case could understand the strength of the argument that this disaster merited detailed investigation by means of a public inquiry. But the decision not to hold one was not a matter for the coroner. Indeed, he had expressed the view that the legal system had 'let the relatives down'.

Moreover, the resumed inquests could only deal with the matters set out in the Coroners Rules 1984, and could not consider some of the matters of particular concern to the applicants.

It was unfortunate that the coroner had expressed himself as he did. Mrs Lockwood Croft's distress and sense of outrage was understandable.

However, in the end, his Lordship had concluded that there was no real danger that any apparent bias by the coroner towards the applicants and the Marchioness Action Group created injustice or materially influenced either his decision not to recuse himself or his decision not to resume.

MR JUSTICE MANTELL agreed.

Paul Magrath, Barrister.

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