24 July 2020
The Excessive Court docket has at this time handed down a judgment quashing a coroner’s choice on the scope of the inquest into the loss of life of Daybreak Sturgess: R (GS) v HM Senior Coroner for Wiltshire and Swindon  EWHC 2007 (Admin)
Ms Sturgess tragically died of Novichok poisoning, having inadvertently opened a discarded fragrance bottle containing the nerve agent. Her loss of life got here some 4 months after the extremely publicised poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal in Salisbury.
The Senior Coroner for Wiltshire and Swindon opened an inquest into Ms Sturgess’ loss of life, and subsequently gave a ruling on its scope. He held that the inquest would think about how the Novichok got here to Salisbury, and the acts and omissions of two Russian males alleged to have introduced it there. Nonetheless, he wouldn’t examine whether or not different members of the Russian state had been answerable for Ms Sturgess’ loss of life, and wouldn’t examine the supply of the Novichok that killed her.
In impact, the inquest would have a look at the involvement of two particular person Russians, however not the Russian state.
Ms Sturgess’ household challenged the ruling on scope on two grounds, one in home legislation, and one counting on article 2 ECHR. They had been profitable on the primary, however not the second.
The Divisional Court docket (Bean LJ and Lewis J) held that the Coroner had erred in his causes for limiting the scope of his inquest. Specifically, he had misapplied the statutory prohibitions that stop a coroner from returning a dedication that seems to find out civil legal responsibility, or legal legal responsibility on the a part of a named particular person. Whereas these would restrict what the Coroner might say on the conclusion of his inquest, they didn’t imply that it couldn’t lawfully look at the broader involvement of the Russian state. The Court docket additionally doubted (obiter) that such an investigation can be too distant to Ms Sturgess’ loss of life, however the truth that she seems to have been the unintended sufferer of actions taken in opposition to an unrelated goal months earlier.
The Court docket was not persuaded, nevertheless, by the article 2 arguments made by the household. The obligations on the UK authorities had been to have in place an efficient legal justice system that allowed for legal investigation and prosecution of offences. There was no further, enhanced responsibility to research the actions of the brokers of a completely different state the place these led to a loss of life inside UK jurisdiction. The Court docket discovered there was no authority in assist of such a proposition, and that it was opposite to the underlying rules of article 2, which involved state accountability for the actions of its personal brokers inside its jurisdiction.
The Coroner’s dedication on scope was quashed, and the matter remitted to him. The Court docket burdened that the Coroner retained a broad discretion on the issues that the inquest ought to discover, and that it will not essentially observe that an inquest or inquiry as broad and prolonged because the Litvinenko case can be required. Nonetheless, Bean LJ and Lewis J additionally famous the next:
There may be acute and apparent public concern not merely on the prima facie proof that an try was made on British soil by Russian brokers to assassinate Mr Skripal and that it led to the loss of life of Ms Sturgess, but in addition at the truth that it concerned using a prohibited nerve agent exposing the inhabitants of Salisbury and Amesbury to deadly danger. There was, and (to be lifelike) there will probably be, no legal trial through which the small print of how this appalling occasion got here to happen may be publicly examined.
For now, it’s for the Coroner to rethink the choice on scope and assess the place to mark out the boundaries of his investigation.
But when these boundaries lengthen to incorporate extremely delicate proof, notably intelligence on the Russian state’s involvement within the occasions, then the Coroner will discover himself up in opposition to one other prohibition, that stopping “closed” hearings in inquests through which such proof may be adduced.
In these circumstances, as in the Litvinenko case, the Coroner could discover himself looking for to transform the inquest right into a public inquiry, the place such proof may be heard. That may be a choice for a minister, most definitely the Dwelling Secretary, at a time when Anglo-Russian relations are an especially delicate political subject. It could be a while but earlier than Ms Sturgess’ household, and the general public, study extra of how she died.
Matthew Hill is a barrister at 1 Crown Workplace Row