The High Court’s decision is (sometimes) final: the Court of Appeal confirms the decision of a coroner in relation to witnesses and the risk of harm caused by giving evidence

25 January 2018

The husband and children of the school teacher, Ann Maguire, who was murdered by a pupil, William Cornick, in her classroom in April 2014 have been unsuccessful in their attempt to appeal against the decision of the High Court to dismiss their claim for judicial review of a decision of the Assistant District Coroner for West Yorkshire. 

The Court of Appeal ( [2018] EWCA Civ 6) has confirmed , in the words of our previous blog on this case, that the Coroner’s decision is (almost always) final. As we explained in our blog, the family of Mrs Maguire had to show that it was Wednesbury unreasonable of the Assistant District Coroner not to call the pupils who had known William Cornick to give live evidence at the inquest into Mrs Maguire’s death. The Assistant District Coroner had made this decision because, in his view, the potential harm to the pupils outweighed the potential benefit to the inquest of hearing their evidence live. Mr Justice Holroyde, who heard the claim for judicial review, disagreed with the family and found in his judgement that “it was impossible to say that [the Assistant Deputy Coroner’s] conclusion was not one which was properly open to him”. The family accepted that this was the correct test to be applied but appealed on five grounds, at the heart of which was “the proposition that having decided that the questioning of pupils regarding the school’s policies and rules on weapons and reporting on fellow pupils would  be within the scope of the inquest, it was irrational not to question further and call the interviewed pupils, at least without a full individual inquiry into the circumstances of each, including potential harm”. 

The Court of Appeal dismissed the appeal. In his Judgment, dated 17 January 2018, Lord Burnett of Maldon CJ not only confirmed the decision of the coroner and the judgment of Mr Justice Holroyde, but also restated what had already been said in blunt terms. He stated that there was very little, if any, potential benefit in calling the pupils to give evidence. Since it was clear that there had been no relevant written rules or policies in place at the school, the evidence that the pupils might be able to give would be limited to simply exploring “the individual child’s thinking in connection with the decisions he or she made that morning when confronted with knowledge of what William Cornick was saying and doing”. This would not provide assistance with the general question of what rules and policies the school had, or should have had, in relation to the possession of weapons and whistleblowing. Mr Justice Holroyde went on to consider “whether the coroner had information available to him which was capable of supporting his conclusion that to call the interviewed pupils risked causing them harm”. This was also dealt with by the Court of Appeal quite swiftly. There was a very clear risk that harm could be caused to the pupils by forcing them to relive and answer questions about what they had done and not done in the days and hours before Mrs Maguire’s death. It had therefore been open to the Assistant District Coroner to decide not to call them and Mr Justice Holroyde had been right to uphold this. This was especially so given that there was “very little, if anything, to place in the balance against the potential harm to the interviewed pupils of giving evidence”. 

This appeal provided a useful opportunity for the courts to succinctly rehearse the legal framework governing the scope of an inquest and the available grounds of public law challenges regarding coroners’ decisions. Unfortunately for the family of Mrs Maguire, the decision of the coroner has once again proven to be final.

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