The Coroner’s decision is (almost always) final: the Court’s approach to judicial review of inquest proceedings

29 August 2017

The decision of Mr Justice Holroyde in R oao Donald Maguire and ors v The Assistant Coroner for West Yorkshire (Eastern Area) [2017] EWHC 2039 provides a salutary reminder of just how difficult it is successfully to judicially review the ‘case management’ decisions of a coroner – in this case a decision as to which witnesses to call at an inquest – and of the costs risks of bringing such a challenge.

The case arose in relation to the inquest into the death of Mrs Ann Maguire, a school teacher who in 2014 was brutally murdered in a classroom at her school by one of her pupils, William Cornick. The inquest into Mrs Maguire’s death was opened and then suspended pending the prosecution of William Cornick (who pleaded guilty to murder). The inquest was then resumed and there were a series of pre inquest hearings leading up to a hearing on 13 January 2017 at which the Assistant District Coroner decided that there would be no oral evidence at the inquest from former pupils at the school who had had contact with William Cornick in the period leading up to the murder of Mrs Maguire. It was this decision that was challenged in the judicial review proceedings.

The background to the Assistant District Coroner’s decision was that, during the police investigation into the murder, nine pupils who knew William Cornick, and could speak of what he said and did before the murder, were carefully interviewed using the Achieving Best Evidence procedures best suited to interviewing young witnesses. The general tenor of their evidence in those interviews seems to have been that at times Cornick behaved strangely, including making sick jokes and expressing a wish to kill Mrs Maguire and other teachers; that on the Friday before the murder, Cornick had spoken several times of killing Mrs Maguire during a lesson that was to take place on the following Monday; and, on that Monday, Cornick had repeated the threats and spoken of having knives or sharp implements in his bag. Most of the pupils explained that they had not taken Cornick’s remarks seriously but one who did and who confronted Cornick was intimidated by him and so did not report him to a teacher. One pupil did report Cornick’s behaviour to a teacher but this was just after Mrs Maguire had been killed. The Assistant District Coroner’s decision was that, rather than calling these pupils (or others who had not been interviewed by the police), it would be sufficient of the purposes of the inquest to use relevant extracts from the transcripts of these interviews.

In the judicial review, it was accepted that the Assistant District Coroner’s decision not to call the former pupils as witnesses could only be challenged on grounds of Wednesbury unreasonableness, a notoriously high threshold for claimants to meet. Mr Justice Holroyde expressed it in this way: “The test may be summed up by saying a party who seeks to challenge a decision by a coroner must show that the coroner acted in a way which was not reasonably open to him or her, and made a decision which could not reasonably be reached”.

In deciding not to call any of the former pupils to give evidence, the Assistant District Coroner had, in essence, had to balance two things: the risk of harm to the former pupils (the concern being that in answering questions at the inquest the former pupils, despite this being nobody’s intention, would feel that they had been at fault in not “whistleblowing”, which ran the risk of exacerbating the trauma that they had already experienced); and, as against this, the potential value of their evidence to the matters to be considered at the inquest. In respect of the matters to be considered at the inquest, one issue that was of particular – and understandable – importance to those members of Mrs Maguire’s family who brought the claim was to ensure that lessons could be learned so as to minimise the risk of any similar event happening in the future. As part of that they considered that it would be important for the Assistant District Coroner to know what the pupils understood to be the school’s rules relating to weapons in school and whistleblowing. The Assistant District Coroner did consider this and determined that the benefit of the evidence of the former pupils on this would be “small”.

Applying the Wednesbury test, Mr Justice Holroyde upheld the Assistant District Coroner’s decision –

There were arguments both for and against calling the interviewed pupils as witnesses, and there was room for different views as to how the balance should be struck; but the Assistant District Coroner took the relevant matters into account, and it is in my judgment impossible to say that his conclusion was not one which was properly open to him.”

As a result, the judicial review claim was dismissed and the judge went on to order the claimants to pay the Assistant District Coroner’s costs, notwithstanding that he expressly accepted and understood the claimants’ reasons for wanting the former pupils to give evidence.  In making his decision on costs, Mr Justice Holroyde accepted the submission that the claimants “are in no different position from any others who bring unsuccessful claims arising out of tragic circumstances”.

The decision serves as a good illustration of an orthodox application of judicial review principles in the context of an inquest and also, as a consequence, of the obstacle standing in the way of claimants – even in a case like this where the judge clearly sympathised with their position  - of successfully bringing a challenge.

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