Joined: 13 Feb 2006
|Posted: Sun Mar 12, 2006 11:53 am Post subject: Fayed challenge on Diana inquest jury
|Fayed challenge on Diana inquest jury
THE coroner in charge of the inquest into the death of Diana, Princess of Wales is facing a legal challenge to his decision to appoint 12 royal courtiers to the jury that hears the case.
Michael Burgess, the royal coroner, is embroiled in the row with Mohamed al-Fayed, whose son Dodi died with Diana in the 1997 Paris car crash.
Lawyers for Fayed claim that to have royal courtiers ruling on whether Diana died unlawfully or by accident would make a mockery of the process.
Fayed claims that Diana was murdered by MI6 on the orders of Prince Philip. The prince, MI6 and Diana’s closest friends reject the allegation.
A report by the French police concluded the crash was an accident, caused by the fact that Diana’s chauffeur was drunk and lost control of her Mercedes as it was being chased by paparazzi through the Place d’Alma tunnel in central Paris.
Burgess is awaiting the outcome of a criminal investigation by Lord Stevens, the former Metropolitan police commissioner, before deciding whether to appoint a jury to oversee the case or judge it himself. The report is expected this year.
Last week Burgess said that if he ruled a jury was required, he had no choice but to have it selected from officers of the Queen’s household.
He said: “The Coroners Act 1988 . . . requires that jurors of an inquest held by the coroner of the Queen’s household should consist of officers of that household. This is contained in primary legislation and I have no power to vary this provision.”
But Michael Mansfield QC, the human rights lawyer, acting for Fayed, has warned Burgess that he will take him to the High Court to ensure a jury is formed of members of the public. This could delay the inquest to 2009.
In one letter Fayed’s lawyers told Burgess: “It is our strongly held view that there should be a jury . . . and that it should not be a jury composed of members of the royal household. Indeed, we think a jury is essential.”
Mansfield points out that under the European Convention on Human Rights everyone — including those who have died — has the right to an independent and impartial trial and that this also applies to inquests.
Fayed said last week that he would take the case to the House of Lords and the European court in Strasbourg. “We are going to insist on a jury comprising members of the public. If there is no such jury we will seek to have the coroner removed,” he said.
The royal coroner is traditionally brought in when a member of the royal family dies in an accident or suspicious circumstances. The last royal inquest was held in 1972 when Prince William of Gloucester, eldest son of the Queen’s uncle, the Duke of Gloucester, was killed in a plane crash.
Royal inquests are traditionally held at St James’s Palace with the jury of 12 royal staff acting as representatives of the public. But because of the huge international interest in the case alternative venues such as the Royal Courts of Justice are being considered.
Diana was not a member of the royal family when she died because she had been stripped of the title Her Royal Highness as part of her £17m divorce settlement in 1996.
The new legal row centres on the decision by Dr John Burton, the then royal coroner, to take jurisdiction after the princess’s body was flown back to Britain. Burton said this was because Diana was a resident of Kensington Palace before her death.
Mansfield argues that this decision was unlawful and could be the subject of a successful High Court challenge. In a written opinion he argues that an ordinary jury is required by law: “Mr Al-Fayed wishes the inquest to investigate whether the fatal collision was caused by agents of the state. It is increasingly clear that the investigation in France was inadequate.
“It follows that there is a need for an investigation which complies with the procedural safeguards laid down (by the European court).
“The Court of Appeal has also recently recognised that the more serious the events that call for inquiry, the more intensive should be the process of public scrutiny.
“It is difficult to think of deaths in recent times about which there has been greater public distress and concern . . . a jury is essential if the considerable public anxiety about these deaths is to be assuaged.”
In a separate note he adds: “By virtue of section 29 (4) (of the Coroners Act) jurors in the Diana inquest will have to consist of officers of the Queen’s household. It appears that they would be nominated by whichever officer of the household was directed by the coroner to summon them. This would clearly make a mockery of the whole process.”
The act suggests that the coroner would ask the lord steward of the Queen’s household to arrange the jury for him. The incumbent is Sir James Hamilton, the Duke of Abercorn.
Diana, Princess of Wales is and always will be The People's Princess.