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Friday, 23 March, 2001, 14:08 GMT
Coroner criticised for hand removal
Marchioness
The Marchioness collided with a dredger
A coroner has been criticised for his decision to remove the hands of more than 20 victims of the Marchioness disaster for "identification purposes".

The non-statutory report, published alongside the main report into the tragedy in which 51 people died, ruled that this should not have happened, "except as a last resort".

But the report's author, Lord Justice Clarke, accepted that Westminster coroner Dr Paul Knapman had acted "acted throughout in good faith and with the best of intentions".


No one paused to consider the possibility of a deceased person being identified by dental records

Lord Justice Clarke
Lord Clarke's report said: "No one paused to consider the possibility of a deceased person being identified by dental records before the decision to remove the hands was taken.

"It is to my mind a shocking feature of the case that it was possible for a pair of hands to be left undiscovered in the [Westminster] mortuary, not just for months but for years.

"The hands should not have been removed and Dr Knapman must bear the responsibility for the fact that they were."

Westminster coroner Dr Paul Knapman
Lord Clarke accepted that Dr Knapman acted 'in good faith'
But Lord Clarke added that, in his opinion, Dr Knapman had not acted recklessly.

Dr Knapman said he hoped the report would be a "turning point" for all those affected by the disaster.

He said: "I understand that for some of the families ... their focus will remain those actions of mine and others that have had the unintentional effect of adding to their hurt.

"I very much regret that this has happened. My strongest desire is that Lord Clarke's report, and its clear signposts for the future, can now mark a turning point for all of us."

Established practice

In a statement, Dr Knapman said he should have been "more explicit" in his original briefing to senior police officers.


I judged that what the relatives ... wanted most was a swift and certain identification

Dr Paul Knapman
"It is clear now with hindsight that a number of families would have been spared much additional pain if I had been able to ensure that the police in the mortuary tackled the question of fingerprinting on a case-by-case basis," he said.

He said the decisions taken were in line with established practice at the time and were made with no intention of "causing further distress".

Second funerals

"They were taken in the context of an immensely complex situation for which none of us could have been prepared.

"I judged that what the relatives of those who feared the loss of a loved one wanted most was a swift and certain identification.

Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott
John Prescott said the government would act upon the report's safety recommendations
"To have acted otherwise could have added a week's uncertainty for those families.

"I did not fully recognise the distress that further disfigurement of the bodies might cause."

Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott said it was hard to imagine the distress relatives must have felt.

He said Home Secretary Jack Straw would be asking coroners to report any future cases where hands are removed to the Home Office.

Health Secretary Alan Milburn has agreed that an ongoing review of the Human Tissue Act will be widened to cover Lord Justice Clarke's findings.

The bereaved were originally told that just blood and urine samples were taken for toxicology tests for drugs and alcohol.

Some families are now considering holding second funerals to reunite those who died with their hands.

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