Dangers of secret inquests

Dangers of secret inquests


Written by: IRR News Team

In the Counter Terrorism Bill 2008, the government published proposals to allow an inquest to be held in secret ‘in the interests of national security’.

The new proposals allow the Home Secretary to issue a certificate requiring an inquest to be held without a jury. In such cases the inquest would be held in front of a ‘specially appointed coroner’ with specially appointed counsel – who would have access to secret evidence which the family and legal representatives of the deceased would not.

The move follows the death of Azelle Rodney in April 2005 after a police operation in north London in which he was shot seven times. After his death, the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) conducted an investigation and a file was passed to the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) and in July 2006 the CPS announced that there was ‘insufficient evidence to disclose a realistic prospect of conviction against any officer for any offence in relation to the fatal shooting’. After the CPS decision the family was told by the coroner that the full inquest could not be held because large portions of the police officers’ statements had been crossed out under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (Ripa) 2000, which covers information obtained from covert surveillance devices such as telephone taps or bugs. Lawyers acting for the family of Azelle Rodney threatened to take the government to court to show that Ripa was in breach of the Human Rights Act.

Azelle was shot seven times after the car he was in was ordered to stop in a ‘hard stop’ after being under police surveillance for over three hours in Edgware, north London. Two men were later convicted for firearms offences but there was no evidence that Azelle was armed at the time of the shooting.

The proposed changes could have implications for the family of Jean Charles de Menezes, who was shot dead by police at Stockwell underground station after being mistaken for a suicide bomber. They are currently waiting for the inquest into his death to be held.

Daniel Machover, solicitor for Susan Alexander, Azelle Rodney’s mother told IRR News: ‘Presented with the problem of what to do with sensitive material that is relevant to the circumstances of how and why a person was killed by a state agent, the government proposes to remove the vital democratic accountable layer of a jury and hide away from the bereaved family crucial evidence about the death. My client, Susan Alexander, is very distressed that having expected a new law which would finally enable her to see and question the key evidence that led to the police shooting of her son, she will end up being worse off than before.’

Helen Shaw, co-director of INQUEST which assist the families of those who died in police custody, told IRR News: ‘We have serious concerns about these far-reaching proposals which have been introduced without consultation and have wide consequences. The public will find it difficult to have confidence that these coroner-only inquests, with key evidence being suppressed, can investigate contentious deaths involving state agents independently.’

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The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.

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