Parties - Persons directly affected - Defendant coroner conducting inquest into deceased's death

Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs v Assistant Deputy Coroner for Inner North London: Queen's Bench Division, Administrative Court (London): 27 June 2013

In November 2006, the deceased died. He had ingested a radioactive isotope. There was evidence that the deceased had worked for the UK intelligence agencies, which the government refused either to confirm or deny. The deceased's wife and children, the secretary of state for the Home Department, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner and the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation were accorded the status of 'properly interested persons' (the PIPs) in the defendant coroner's inquest.

In February 2013, the claimant secretary of state claimed public interest immunity (PII) in respect of a number of documents. In May 2013, the coroner, in part, upheld the secretary of state's PII claim and, in part, rejected it, indicating that disclosure to the PIPs would inevitably follow. The secretary of state sought judicial review of that part of the coroner's decision which rejected his claim for PII. He contended that there was no rule that the PIPs should be interested parties, as they were not parties to the inquest and would not be directly affected by the judicial review under CPR Part 54. The issue for determination was whether the PIPs in the inquest should be interested parties who should participate in the judicial review.

The court ruled: It was an established principle that an inquest was a fact-finding exercise and there were no parties, there was no indictment, there was no prosecution, there was no defence, there was no trial, simply an attempt to establish the facts. It was an inquisitorial process. Further, that a person was directly affected by something, under CPR Part 54, connoted that he was affected without the intervention of any intermediate agency. Furthermore, there was no hard and fast obligation on the part of the coroner to disclose any witness statements or material: it was a matter of the exercise of discretion (see [24], [33], [36] of the judgment).  

Applying the plain and natural meaning of CPR 54.1(2)(f) to the facts of the instant case, the PIPs were interested parties in the judicial review. The quashing of the coroner's decision would mean that the PIPs would not receive the material which the coroner had decided had been relevant and necessary for a proper inquest. They could not exercise their rights in relation to it. They could not make submissions regarding it in pre-inquest hearings. They could not examine any witness regarding it. That would be a direct consequence of the claim for judicial review.

However, there were cogent reasons why, in the particular circumstances of the case, they should not be added as interested parties. The very unusual circumstances of the case had not required, as a matter of justice, that matters which had been properly dealt with by the coroner by way of the PII process, because of sensitivities relating to matters of the national interest, should be dealt with differently in the instant proceedings (see [50], [55], [76], [77] of the judgment). The PIPs should not be added as interested parties. The PIPs and the media would be able to file evidence or make representations during the open part of the proceedings (see [60] of the judgment). R v South London Coroner, ex p Thompson 126 Sol Jo 625 applied; R v Rent Officer Service, ex p Muldoon [1996] 3 All ER 498 applied; R (on the application of Ahmed) v Her Majesty's Coroner South and East Cumbria [2009] EWHC 1653 (Admin) applied.

Neil Garnham QC and Neil Sheldon (instructed by the Treasury Solicitor) for the secretary of state; Andrew O'Connor (instructed by Field Fisher Waterhouse LLP) for the coroner; Alex Bailin QC and Lorna Skinner (instructed by Guardian News and Media) for the media parties; Adam Straw (instructed by Blokh Solicitors) for the deceased's wife and child; Patrick Gibbs QC (instructed by Harbottle & Lewis LLP) for the Investigative Committee for the Russian Federation.

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