Michael Burgess: Speculative reports are not evidence
Coroner Mr Michael Burgess has opened and adjourned an inquest into the deaths of Diana, Princess of Wales and Dodi Fayed. Below are some of the highlights of his statement:
Shortly after midnight, on Sunday, 31 August 1997 in central Paris, there was a car crash, and the two rear seat passengers, together with their driver, received injuries that resulted in their deaths. The passengers' bodies were individually brought back to England later that day.
When a death occurs outside England and Wales, a coroner will become involved if the body is brought into his district and he "has reason to suspect that the deceased has died a violent or unnatural death, [or] has died a sudden death of which the cause is unknown".
The coroner has to rely to a large extent on any investigation carried out by the foreign police or judicial process.This all takes time and even in simple cases, the delay can be expected to be years rather than months.
It would have been desirable for these inquests to have been heard and completed long ago, but that was not possible because the available evidence, which might have been heard at an inquest, was very limited. It was also known that more evidence would be available from the French authorities in due course .
In most cases involving deaths that have occurred abroad, the results of such foreign investigations form the core of agreed evidence before an English inquest. When the material is made available for my use, I will consider which parts are relevant and whether English police officers, acting at my direction, should obtain confirmation and clarification from individual witnesses and make any further investigation in England or elsewhere.
Re: Mr Dodi Fayed -
i. In the course of the morning and early afternoon of 31 August 1997, as Coroner for Surrey I was told of the repatriation of the body of Mr Dodi Fayed and of the wishes of his father, Mr Mohamed Al Fayed, for the burial of his son's body in a cemetery in Surrey before nightfall.
ii. Initially, the arrangements were made for the body to be examined in Surrey but the arrangements were re-cast after I was told that the burial was to be preceded by a religious service in London.
iii. From the general way in which I understood the death of Mr Fayed had come about, and as it was intended to bury his body in Surrey, the death did appear to me to be one where, as a coroner, I was obliged to inquire.
Re: Diana, Princess of Wales -
i. In the course of the morning and afternoon of 31 August 1997, Dr John Burton was similarly appraised of the arrangements for the repatriation of the body of Diana, Princess of Wales; at the time of her repatriation, the arrangements and eventual place for her burial had not been decided.
ii. Again, from the general way in which Dr Burton understood that the death had come about, the death appeared to him to be one where, as a coroner, he was obliged to inquire.
iii. On the evening of 31 August 1997, the body of Diana, Princess of Wales was repatriated then identified both to one of his officers and to the forensic pathologist who subsequently made a post-mortem examination.
Post-Mortem Examinations - At no time did the pathologist receive any instruction or direction from anyone other than Dr Burton and me regarding these examinations.
At no time did Dr Burton or I receive any instruction or direction from anyone regarding these examinations, their conduct, limitation or extent.
Independence - I am an independent judicial officer. This means that I am independent of the families of those who have died, but with whom I deal. I am also independent of those who have appointed me and support me, The Queen's Household and Surrey County Council.
The way forward
Possible complications - In taking forward the inquests I have to address a number of complicating factors -
i. Most of the witnesses of fact will be abroad so careful thought will need to be given into deciding how evidence may be placed before the inquests.
ii. I will also have to consider whether there is any other possible source of evidence or line of inquiry which may be relevant and which needs to be addressed, even if only to exclude it as not being relevant thereafter.
I am aware that there is speculation that these deaths were not the result of a sad, but relatively straightforward, road traffic accident in Paris. I have asked the Metropolitan Police Commissioner to make inquiries. The results of these inquiries will help me to decide whether such matters will fall within the scope of the investigation carried out at the inquests.
I am aware that there is speculation that these deaths were not the result of a sad, but relatively straighforward road traffic accident
Properly Interested Persons - The coroners rules of procedure identify those who are entitled as of right to attend and be represented at an inquest and these include the parents, spouse and children of the person who has died as well as certain others who may have an interest in the death (e.g., the executors of the deceased person's will and any person whose actions or omissions may have caused or contributed to the death).
I am in regular touch with family members or their representatives. I well understand that, individually, the surviving parents and children of those who have died will have their own particular perspectives and feelings and it is not my function, nor is it for the public, to trespass on their grief or presume a particular attitude. Ultimately, it is entirely a matter for each of them as to whether or not, how and the extent to which they participate in these inquests.
Witnesses and Evidence - As coroner, I am responsible for identifying the witnesses to be heard. I will include those who can provide material and relevant evidence to help me to establish the facts I require. Until I have seen the statements and the likely contributions of potential witnesses, I am unable to decide who to call to give evidence.
I have to separate fact from fiction and speculation. Speculation and speculative reports are not themselves evidence, however frequently and authoritatively they may be published, broadcast or repeated.
At inquests, evidence is given under oath. If witnesses are abroad it may not be possible for them to attend and they cannot be forced so to do. The rules of procedure do enable me to accept documentary evidence.
Timing of the Resumed Hearings - I have set out some of the complexities to be addressed, as well as the details that I need. All of this will take time. Realistically, therefore we must be looking forward at least 12-15 months (that is, to at least the first quarter of 2005) before I will be in a position to resume these cases. This assumes that everything will proceed forward in a "timely" way with the French material becoming available for my use very soon and all those who have their parts to play doing so promptly when requested.
WATCH AND LISTEN
The BBC's Nicholas Witchell
"It's become one of the most talked about crashes of all time"
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