High court quash coroner’s anonymity ruling and allows family of Andrew Hall to see inquest evidence of police officers

Friday 8 November 2019

The family is represented by Leslie Thomas QC of Garden Court Chambers and Adam Straw of Doughty Street Chambers in the Judicial Review, instructed by Alice Stevens of Broudie Jackson Canter Solicitors.

Leslie Thomas QC and Ifeanyi Odogwu of Garden Court Chambers represent the family in the inquest.

Leslie, Ifeanyi, Adam and Alice are all members of the INQUEST Lawyers Group.

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Before Mrs Justice Jefford, High Court
R (on the Application of Dyer) v HM Assistant Coroner for West Yorkshire (Western) Area CO/3140/2019

On 30 October 2019 the High Court ordered that seven family members be entitled to see 16 West Yorkshire police offers and a custody nurse give evidence at the inquest into the death of Andrew Hall, quashing the coroner’s ruling on anonymity.  

Andrew Hall, a black man from Huddersfield, was 43 when he died on 13 September 2016. He was subject to a period of restraint by officers at Huddersfield Police station, after being arrested in Huddersfield Royal Infirmary where he had been very unwell. Whilst being restrained, Andrew deteriorated and was taken back to hospital where he died. The inquest into his death was due to begin on 4 November but has been adjourned to a future date, which is yet to be confirmed.

This judgement was the result of a Judicial Review by the family, on HM Assistant Coroner Oliver Longstaff’s ruling in the lead up to the inquest. The coroner ruled that 16 officers and a custody nurse involved in Andrew’s restraint should give evidence from behind screens. This ruling was made following an application for anonymity and screening from lawyers for the Chief Constable for West Yorkshire Police and the Police Federation. 

The coroner’s decision meant Andrew’s family were facing an inquest in which they and the public would be prevented from seeing any of the officers directly involved in his restraint give evidence.  The family were unhappy with this prospect and so challenged the Coroner’s Ruling on screening with this urgent Judicial Review. 

The High Court judgment explains the approach a Coroner should take in applications for screens (under rule 18 of the Coroners Rules). A balancing exercise must be carried out. The factors to be taken into account include: the fundamental importance of open justice; screens should only be used to the extent necessary;  and that- in a case of this nature - screens may undermine public confidence. The judge also noted the significant public interest in an inquest into the death of a black man in (or shortly following) police custody.

The court explained why being able to see a witness may be important, for example to enable an assessment of demeanour. The court held that the coroner failed to perform the balancing exercise properly and did not take into account the fundamental importance of public confidence in the process. The coroner did not give any real consideration to whether the officers’ fears of giving evidence unscreened were objectively valid. The coroner’s decision was therefore irrational, and the court decided for itself that the family should not be screened from 14 police officers and a custody nurse.

INQUEST gave a witness statement to the High Court, highlighting the benefit of bereaved families seeing key witnesses giving evidence at inquests, including enabling more trust in the investigation, having the opportunity to see and understand the body language of a witness, and seeing those involved in a death explaining their actions being held to account. The statement also highlighted the important role open and transparent investigations play in allowing public confidence in the process.

Alice Stevens of Broudie Jackson Canter Solicitors said:

“Andrew’s family have been patiently waiting for three years for a full and fearless inquest. Their priority has always been to find out how Andrew died in such tragic circumstances yet, as a result of anonymity and screening applications, they been subjected to background checks, numerous hearings and multiple legal aid applications.

Recent years have shown a rising trend in police officers seeking anonymity and screening at inquests in which their actions are called into question. This judgment rightly highlights the fact that open justice in inquests involving contact by state bodies should not be undervalued and that screening may undervalue public confidence and should not be granted without careful consideration. Andrew’s family will now be able to fully focus on Andrew’s inquest and try to obtain answers to the many questions that have surrounding his death.”

Deborah Coles, Director of INQUEST, said:

“We repeatedly see defensive and combative tactics by police lawyers in the growing number of anonymity requests at inquests. This is about justice being done and being seen to be done. Anonymity goes against the spirit of an open and transparent investigation and hinders scrutiny of public officials. This judgment recognises the significant public interest in deaths of black men in custody. Open justice is vital to assuage public concern about cover ups and to ensure accountability.”

This judgment was reported on by the Guardian.

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