Withholding the location of deaths by staff at Southwark Coroner’s Court has been the most disturbing development in my career as a crime reporter, writes Henri Burgess.
When someone dies in unexplained circumstances it falls upon the coroner to investigate in a public tribunal who that person was and where and how they met their end.
Southwark Coroner’s Court – a law unto itself?
Inquests are open to the press and information can only be withheld in exceptional circumstances.
The location of a person’s death is a matter of public interest and without it a newspaper or website cannot report the case.
It is no use only stating that someone who hanged themselves lived in Battersea to someone who lives in Battersea; residents expect and are entitled to a precise location.
Coroners and the coroners’ officers who investigate the cases for them have always recognised the needs of the press, who are after all the eyes and ears of the public who in turn pay their wages.
Throughout Britain, the staff who organise and preside over inquests are helpful and freely disclose the details necessary for the press to do their job.
That is why the singular attitude of the staff at Southwark Coroner’s Court in repeatedly refusing to disclose the location of a person’s death is to me the most astonishing example of official wrong-headedness.
Staff not only refuse to give these details – they also decline to give the first name of a witness if that person did not disclose it in open court.
They also refuse to clarify any information given at the inquest to reporters and inquiries of members of staff are met with: ‘We don’t speak to the press.’
It’s an absolute scandal.
What makes this obstruction of the press all the more concerning to me is the attitude of Dr Andrew Harris, the Coroner for Inner South District of Greater London.
It was three months, yes, three months, before Dr Harris replied to my letter to him and he then took the opportunity to complain about my ‘tone’ and make previously unaired accusations against my reporting staff.
He also added some helpful tips of his own on how journalists should learn their craft.
His letter stated: ‘It should be basic to the training of all journalists that no person may approach a judicial officer whilst he or she is sitting and this is regularly breached by your staff.’
I am not aware of an occasion when a reporter for cournewsuk has ever tried to approach a coroner when he is on the bench. But why should a journalist not ask a coroner why the location of a death is being kept a secret when he is off the bench?
There is a famous example where a coroner has retrieved documents from his car boot to help a reporter and the great coroners of London, such as John Sampson, Dr Paul Knapman and the legendary Sir Montague Levine were always as helpful to the press as they could possibly be.
I believe Dr Harris’s attitude belongs to the medieval fiefdoms of the dark ages, especially as is come at a time when the Ministry of Justice is working so hard to encourage transparency.
In his letter, Dr Harris also demonstrates his expertise as a journalist when he states: ‘I do not accept your assertion that without the full address of the deceased an inquest cannot be covered.’
Reporters are not taught that it is wrong to approach a coroner who is, after all, a public servant funded by the taxpayer and not a member of the Bulgarian royal family.
They are taught that failure to precisely identify a person can lead to a libel case, as the classic authority of Newstead v London Express Papers (1940) so amply demonstrates.
Perhaps the most worrying episode of this whole debacle is that it appears a coroner can do exactly as he pleases.
I have complained about the withholding of basic information at Southwark Coroner’s Court to the Office of Judicial Complaints but they have told me they can only deal with matters of policy.
INQUEST, the charity that provides free advice service to bereaved people on contentious deaths does not appear to be unduly worried about the dangers of creeping secrecy within the judicial process.
I contacted the Coroner’s Society and one of their members was good enough to call me to express his amazement at the attitude of Dr Harris – but that was then end of that.
Southwark Council, who actually pay Dr Harris’s salary say they can’t do anything either.
So it appears Southwark Coroner’s Court can continue to keep the press in the dark and is answerable to no-one.
At the end of his letter Dr Harris states: ‘I should add that we have a culture of being a learning organisation.’
I suggest he needs to learn that the press has a duty to perform by reporting his public forum and without disclosing basic details he defies the principles of open justice upon which democracy in this country depends.
We can only hope that when the former Old Bailey judge Peter Thornton becomes chief coroner he will put an end to the nonsense at Southwark Coroner’s Court.
We will waste no time complaining to him about this disgraceful affront to open justice.