Published 29 July 2016
Last week Peter Thornton QC, the outgoing Chief Coroner, called for legal aid to be made available to families in state-involved inquests, citing the recently-concluded Hillsborough Inquest and the upcoming hearings into the 1974 Birmingham pub bombings. Equality of arms before the law, he argued, was necessary when grieving relatives come up against the best barristers the government and other public bodies can hire.
Having covered many inquests, from police shootings to mass casualty terrorism, from unexplained deaths involving national security to rail disasters, I wholeheartedly agree. Pro-bono help has its limits for the bereaved seeking answers and for the coroner and their hard-pressed staff trying to keep a complex process on track. But in my experience, it’s not just families who sometimes need extra support to ensure that an inquest achieves its goals – getting answers and maintaining public confidence.
In recent years, inquests have often been as high profile and newsworthy as criminal trials and in some cases a good deal more controversial. Mark Duggan. The July 7 bombings. Jean Charles de Menezes and, of course, Hillsborough. Each raised issues of great public interest and were the subject of great public interest. Each were legal processes but not just legal processes. Their very conduct became an issue to be challenged both in other courts and in the media, debated by politicians, commentators and the wider public.
My colleagues Chris Webb and Charlotte Phillips know these sorts of communications challenges all too well from their former lives. Some families may wish to speak to media, others may not. Some will see cameras as an opportunity, others as a threat. Venues, costs, funding all can become issues in their own right which need managing promptly and effectively. Upset families, harassed staff, frustrated journalists, bemused witnesses, delayed proceedings and – ultimately – a baffled or sceptical public benefits nobody. What has become clear to me is that on the occasions I saw this happen, when the wheels started to come off, it was obvious that it didn’t have to be that way. Good planning and good communications advice could have headed trouble off at the pass or, better still, positively helped the coroner and their team achieve what they set out to do – by, for example, appealing for evidence, managing expectations and demonstrating transparency.
As a reporter, I often felt sympathy for a coroner and their team trying to establish the facts, demonstrate independence from the state, treat all parties with impartiality and show sensitivity to the bereaved – all the time relying on evidence provided largely by third parties, including some likely to be criticised further down the line. And, as a rule of thumb, the higher profile the death(s) the harder this balancing act is. Throw in an element of race-relations or terrorism or espionage or whichever hot social topic can (though not necessarily ought to) be attached to the matters at hand and not being knocked off course by the ensuing publicity, controversy or politics gets very difficult. It’s different in the criminal courts, of course, where trials remain protected from a lot of publicity by the Contempt of Court Act.
But at those inquests where there is no jury, where the individuals most affected are represented in court, proceedings are often more combustible and there is free reign for others to comment, to commentate – even to challenge or protest with the attendant risk of disruption and delay to proceedings.
Separately, the practical challenges in the contemporary high profile inquest are growing. Put bluntly, this is the age of digitised death, with abundant CCTV footage of ‘the final moments’, where tragedy is captured on smartphone or even live-streamed on Facebook. The quantity of audio-visual material available to the court has grown at a staggering rate in recent years – and so, correspondingly, has the media’s appetite to access and publish it.
Reporters have acquired precedents and rights to obtain such material and they are not afraid to pay for counsel to argue their case, particularly when they can count the ratings and web traffic. Five years ago reporters would settle for accessing material in time for evening news programmes and first edition deadlines. The rise of digital platforms and need for instantly shareable content for smartphones and tablets has increased their ambitions. Ensuring justice is seen to be done through the efficient, timely and controlled release of digitised evidence is going to become a full time job at some inquests.
For what is the alternative? In an age of social media commentary, as instantaneous as it can be erroneous, the core purpose of an inquest – to establish the cause of death (not apportion blame) risks being thwarted by post-factual conspiracy theories based on misunderstandings, misperceptions and misconceptions. Indeed, it is worth posing the question ‘Has anything really been established at all, if the cause of death determined in a court of law is subsequently rejected by the court of public opinion ?’ (I’m not sure but I’d be interested to hear thoughts from those better qualified than I am to answer).
Step back 800 years and the duty of a coroner was to swell the coffers of England’s medieval kings: if the coroner could establish that an unexplained death was suicide, the deceased’s goods became forfeit to the Crown. Thankfully, today’s coroners have a different agenda, but in a world now linked and increasingly informed by social media, where answers are demanded but facts rejected – sometimes in the same breath – they may yet face the scepticism their forebears’ once did.
Grieving families deserve equality of arms before the law, but coroners themselves may increasingly need support – planning and delivering effective communications about proceedings – if their inquests and their findings are to get a fair hearing of their own.