Labour's hidden death-courts have no place in our democracy
On a Spring evening in 2005 a car containing three black men was blocked in by police cars belonging to Gun Squad SO19 and 14 armed policemen leapt to deal with the occupants. Two were later convicted of crack-dealing offences. The car contained two working handguns with six rounds of ammunition, two of which were small calibre (possibly .22), as well as a non-working deactivated handgun. The third occupant of the car, 24 year old Azelle Rodney, was shot six times in the head, face, neck and chest. He died.
From the bare facts one might be excused for believing this to have been a straightforward case of death by misadventure; no-one has suggested that Azelle Rodney was ignorant of the purpose of the other two, or of the presence of handguns in the vehicle. Indeed, a Coroner's jury presented with the evidence might easily reach a misadventure verdict. The police officer who fired the fatal shots says he had reason to suspect that Rodney was reaching for a firearm. The CPS have found insufficient grounds to prosecute him.
However, no Coroner's jury has heard the evidence or is likely to. The Coroner has said he cannot hold a lawful inquest because of secret evidence that cannot be made public.
And here we can only conjecture. It could be that a friend or relative of Rodney, or an undercover police or customs officer, had informed police that the trio were more heavily armed than they were - that on the basis of this information that they believed that Rodney could have been reaching for, say, an automatic assault rifle. To make public the identity of such an informant amongst that crack milieu might be to cause their death. It could be that the hypothetical informant has refused or not qualified for a new identity, or that the police are still using them.
For whatever reason, the evidence is 'secret'. In my conjectural case above, it might be that such evidence cannot be given to a jury without exposing the identity of the informant; that whatever the integrity of jury members, they would be subject to threat, intimidation or violence from the drugs milieu to disclose the identity of such an informant.
I suspect it's for reasons very much like these that the government are proposing, in ss. 64 & 65 of the Counter Terrorism Bill, to have the right to hold inquests without juries and to appoint their own coroner if the Minister thinks that it would not be 'in the public interest' to disclose sensitive information to a normal coroner and jury.
They are utterly and completely wrong.
Coroners' inquests are not about the rights of the living, or even less about 'the public interest'; they are about the rights of the dead. It is the right of every British subject who meets a violent or sudden death at the hands of the State to have a jury of ordinary British subjects, under the advice of a coroner who is outside of the criminal justice system, to have the circumstances of their demise examined. It is one of our most ancient rights. It might be that the coroner's jury decides it was our own fault - death by misadventure. Or that we killed ourselves. Or that it was an accident. But our greatest defence lies in the fact that they can also decide, against the wishes of the police, or the CPS, or the government, or the coroner himself, that we were unlawfully killed. This is our final safeguard against the capriciousness of the State, and the basis of the compact between the Crown and the people, in which allegiance is given in return for protection from casual murder.
We cannot permit any government to rob us of this right.