Saturday, 7 July 2012

Section 17A of the Coroners Act 1988

At the time of Dr Kelly's death the determining legislation regarding inquest procedure was the Coroners Act 1988  It is Section 17A of the Act that is of special relevance to the Hutton Inquiry, and the way that the Coroner Nicholas Gardiner was sidelined.

Section 17A is titled "Adjournment of inquest in event of judicial inquiry"   As can be seen it is quite short and fortunately, compared to much legislation, easy to read.  Section 17A was brought about by Section 71 of the Access to Justice Act 1999

So why was this additional section in the 1999 legislation created ... to be then inserted into the 1988 Coroners Act?  Well it is evident that what was to become Section 17A was a very small part of the comprehensive Access to Justice Act, in other words it needs to be emphasised that Section 17A was very far removed from being a one off piece of legislation.  It seems to me that government lawyers were looking at a whole range of legislation in the justice field to see whether it could be modified or improved.  

I think that Section 17A was a worthy piece of legislation.  Previously there had been duplication of procedure where there had been multiple deaths.  A classic instance was the Zeebrugge Ferry disaster on the night of 6 March 1987 in which 193 people died  Obviously this event necessitated a public inquiry and the legislation of the time also demanded that inquests be carried out on the deceased.  In this instance a coroner's jury returned a verdict of unlawful killing  The inquest took place after the conclusion of the inquiry; in this particular case it was obviously important for the inquiry to proceed with expedition.

In bare essentials an inquest asks the questions: "Who, how, when and where".  With the Zeebrugge situation and other multi death disasters the answers are, in large part, fairly apparent.  It is the question of how such a terrible event can happen that demands the greater attention.  If witnesses are examined under oath and if there are full powers of subpoena, which ought to happen with every public inquiry in my opinion, then where there there isn't controversy about the "who, how, when and where" it seems eminently sensible to let the public inquiry carry out the function of the inquest ... at least where multiple deaths are concerned. 

Falconer, as Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs, set up the Hutton Inquiry.  Replacing his political hat with his judicial one as Lord Chancellor, he invoked Section 17A of the Coroners Act 1988 on 12 August 2003.  Uniquely this was an occasion concerning a single death, and a death where the "how, when and where" were far from clearcut.

This post has been merely an introduction to Section 17A ... how it affected the Kelly case will be looked at in much more detail later. 


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