Leading article: Justice must be seen to be done

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The Independent Online

It is now plain that Lord Hutton's decision not to order an official coroner's inquest into the death of Dr David Kelly was a mistake. That omission has facilitated the growth of conspiracy theories about how the former weapons inspector died in 2003. Those theories look like the purest fantasy. But the absence of a formal inquest has removed what would have been a check on the deluded gaining an audience for their wild ideas.

It is also now plain that the manner in which the authorities investigated the death of Ian Tomlinson, a newspaper seller who died after being shoved by a police officer at the G20 protests, was a disgrace. Dr Freddie Patel, who initially examined Mr Tomlinson's body, should never have been on the Home Office Register of Forensic Pathologists since he did not work in a group practice, as is required. Dr Patel is also under investigation for misconduct and deficient professional performance in relation to four other cases.

The consequences turned out to be disastrous. Discrepancies between Dr Patel's verdict on the cause of death (coronary artery disease) and those of two other pathologists who subsequently examined Mr Tomlinson's body (internal bleeding) meant charges could not be brought by the Crown Prosecution Service against the officer who was captured on video landing a blow on him.

The lesson from both the Kelly and Tomlinson cases is that high-profile and suspicious deaths need to be investigated by the authorities following proper procedure and with complete transparency. The Tomlinson case has also drawn attention to the fact that there is no effective oversight of the coroners working in Britain. In the words of Sebastian Lucas, professor of pathology at King's College London, "they are a law unto themselves".

That clearly needs to change. The previous Government was a menace in this area. Last year, it rammed through the Coroners and Justice Bill which introduced the potential for the Government to order "secret inquests", allowing for the exclusion of relatives, juries and the media in the name of protecting national security.

The new administration has yet to demonstrate that it is any better. The establishment of a streamlined national service of coroners is under threat because of budget cuts at the Ministry of Justice. The Coalition must show it understands the urgent need to ensure that, when it comes to high-profile and suspicious deaths, not only that justice is done, but also that it is seen to be done.

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