Sunday, 8 July 2012

Coroner on the sidelines - thanks to Falconer (3)

MP Norman Baker spent some time asking questions about the process whereby Section 17 was invoked and then devoted a useful amount of space in his book covering the subject.

The first letter sent to the coroner from Sarah Albon, Principal Private Secretary to Lord Falconer, appears to be the one of 4 August referred to in a previous post.  Significantly she seems to have waited until after Hutton had officially started his Inquiry on Friday 1 August by way of his opening statement.  In my last post I reproduced part of the letter sent by Mr Gardiner to Mr McGinty at the Attorney General's Office.  In it it seems that Ms Albon had made an informal approach, perhaps by telephone, regarding Section 17A being invoked and that this occurred in the week leading up to Dr Hunt writing his amended report of 25 July ... if Mr Gardiner's recall of the sequence of events is accurate.

Part of the letter dated 4 August was reproduced by Norman Baker:

... the coroner should, in the absence of any exceptional reason, adjourn the inquest.  One of the purposes is to prevent duplication of proceedings ..... He [the Lord Chancellor] has asked if you would kindly signify within 7 days your agreement that there is no exceptional reason why the inquest should not continue to be adjourned.  

According to Mr Baker the coroner responded to this letter on 6 August (coincidentally the day of Dr Kelly's funeral).  Mr Gardiner made the point:

I had envisaged that it might be possible to conclude the Inquest during September.

He also said:

As you will know, a Coroner has power to compel the attendance of witnesses.  There are no such powers attached to a Public Inquiry.  If I do adjourn under Section 17A(1), I would be unable to resume, if at all, until after the Public Inquiry has been concluded and thus would not be in a position to assist Lord Hutton.   

It looks then that at that time Mr Gardiner felt that he should be allowed to continue with the inquest, partly because as a coroner he had greater powers than Lord Hutton, so far as compelling witnesses at least.

Mr Gardiner in fact makes a very basic mistake in his assertion, something he repeated in his statement on 16 March 2004 when he decided not to resume the inquest.  It would be quite correct to point out that Hutton's "ad hoc" Inquiry was lacking in powers but Mr Gardiner implies that this relates to any public inquiry.  He is wrong: if the Inquiry, as it should have been, had been convened under the "Tribunals of Inquiry (Evidence) Act 1921" then Hutton would have had powers of compellability and the evidence would have to have been given under oath.  It is worrying that Mr Gardiner failed to understand this.

Ms Albon wrote again on 14 August and that letter is reproduced in full on pages 4 and 5 here:  
Again, very worryingly, Mr Gardiner appears to be incorrect in saying that the meeting with the Department's officials was on the afternoon of 8 August rather than on the 11th.  I have no reason to think that Mr Gardiner would be intentionally dishonest, it is more a concern that he wasn't totally on top of the facts - it must be remembered though that his letter to Mr McGinty was almost eight years after the event and that he might have written from memory rather than checking his diary for factual accuracy. 

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