‘Inquests Behind Closed Doors Unacceptable’

Family and supporters of Azelle Rodney protest outside the offices of the Independent Police Complaints Commission in December 2005.
Family and supporters of Azelle Rodney protest outside the offices of the Independent Police Complaints Commission in December 2005.

Human rights organisations said yesterday that legislation enabling inquests into those who have died in police custody or been killed at the hands of the police to happen behind closed doors is unacceptable.

The Joint Committee on Human Rights (JCHR) yesterday published the report of its inquiry into the Justice and Security Green Paper in which it states that ‘it does not accept that the Government has made out the case for extending closed material procedures (CMP’s) to inquests’.

The Justice and Security Green Paper, if it became law would mean that Inquests into cases where people had died at the hands of the police would happen with out even the family of those who had been killed being present.

Human Rights organisation Inquest supported the JCHR report stating: ‘The report roundly rejects the government’s proposals to introduce closed procedures at inquests, which would mean families and their legal representatives being prevented from hearing or challenging evidence concerning how their relative died.

Inquests said that the JCHR were clear that:

‘ • The Government has not adduced ‘any evidence’ to demonstrate the need for change, let alone sufficient evidence to justify the need for such fundamental changes as are proposed.

‘ • There are ‘serious doubts’ as to whether using CMPs in inquests could ever be compatible with Article 2’.

(Article Two of the Human Rights Act 1998 is entitled ‘Right to life’. It says: ‘Everyone’s right to life shall be protected by law.)

‘ • Coroners have been resourceful and pragmatic in addressing issues of sensitivity short of holding a CMP.

‘ • There is scope to produce greater consistency of practice between different inquests.

‘ • Reform of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (RIPA) is needed.

Inquest continues: ‘Throughout the report the Committee agrees with INQUEST and the INQUEST Lawyers Group evidence and concludes the section on inquests by stating:

‘ “We endorse the suggestions made to us by INQUEST and the INQUEST Lawyers Group as measures falling short of the introduction of closed material procedures into inquests which would address some of the Government’s concerns in the Green Paper”.

Helen Shaw, co-director of INQUEST said: ‘It is abundantly clear that there is no need for such sweeping changes to the law.

‘The fact that the government was unable to produce a shred of evidence to support these proposals is testament to that.

‘The Committee has recognised that current practice at inquests adequately serves the public interest for transparency and scrutiny of contentious deaths whilst also protecting the interests of national security.

‘We also welcome their endorsement of our suggested approach to improving national guidance to coroners presiding over these complex inquests.

‘The remaining anomaly in relation to intercept evidence can be resolved by government taking this opportunity to amend RIPA as we suggested in our evidence and was noted by the Committee.

‘This same suggestion was made both by the Metropolitan Police Service in their response to the Green Paper consultation and also last week by the IPCC in response to the furore about the Mark Duggan inquest.

‘The Committee has clearly stated that the government’s proposals for greater secrecy are not necessary.

‘Over and above everything else, it is vital that a bereaved family is able to understand fully why their relative died.’

In Inquest and Inquest Lawyers Group’s submission into the Justice and Security Green Paper they refer to the case of Azelle Rodney, gunned down by the police in 2005.

They state: ‘Mr Rodney’s killing by the Metropolitan Police Service in April 2005 is the first police shooting case which is unlikely to ever be examined at an inquest.

‘In August 2007, Andrew Walker, Deputy Coroner for the Northern District of Greater London was told that he would not be able to see all the material in this case and that the family were also prevented from seeing it.

‘The coroner was told by those acting for the Commissioner (and who had of course seen the closed material) that the fact that the obligation to disclose all core documents could not be complied with.

‘He also said that witnesses could not be openly questioned about certain core documents meant that it was ‘plain and obvious’ that for an inquest to proceed would be ‘unfair’ and would fail to discharge the requirements of article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

‘Instead, Sir Christopher Holland has been invited by the Lord Chancellor to conduct a public inquiry which is taking place in a new framework, pursuant to the (not yet in force) provisions of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009 that enables ministers to suspend an inquest in favour of an inquiry under the Inquiries Act 2005.’

Inquest and Inquest Lawyers Group’s submission continues: ‘The terms of reference of the inquiry are to inquire “how, where and in what circumstances Azelle Rodney came by his death on 30th April 2005” and to “make any such recommendations as may seem appropriate.”

‘The Azelle Rodney Inquiry (ARI) was formally opened on 6 October 2010.

‘During the opening of the Inquiry counsel for the Home Office, James Eadie QC, stated that the Azelle Rodney Inquiry had been set up under the Inquiries Act 2005 so that it could receive all relevant material where an inquest could not.

‘What this statement omits of course is that while the inquiry team can see sensitive material which a coroner is not allowed to see, the family are no better off in such an inquiry as they appear to be barred from seeing certain classes of sensitive material, which will therefore only be considered in secret, subject to any contrary ruling by Sir Christopher Holland.’

In the Summary of Inquest and Inquest Lawyers Group’s submission to JCHR inquiry into the Justice and Security Green Paper they state: ‘The Joint Committee on Human Rights’ (JCHR) inquiry into the Government’s Justice and Security Green Paper asks about the compatibility of the proposals with the “UK’s constitutional tradition of open justice and fair hearings and its international human rights obligations in relation to the same”.

Inquest and the Inquest Lawyers Group view is that the introduction of Closed Material Procedures (CMPs) into inquests would, particularly in the context of the UK’s obligations under article 2 of the ECHR, be wrong in principle and an unnecessary, disproportionate measure.