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Last Updated: Monday, 8 January 2007, 13:36 GMT
Q&A: Diana inquest
Princess Diana
Lady Butler-Sloss will set the date for the inquest
As a preliminary hearing opens at the High Court to rule on the process of the inquest into the death of Princess Diana, legal analyst Jon Silverman explains the options.

What is the purpose of the hearing?

An inquest is an inquiry to establish reliable answers to four important, but limited questions: a) the identity of the deceased; b)the place of death; c) the time of death; d) how the deceased came by his or her death.

It is not the purpose of the inquest to apportion blame though, in cases where there has been a verdict of unlawful killing, criminal prosecutions have sometimes, but not automatically, followed.

In some cases, such as the inquest last year into the death of the ITN journalist, Terry Lloyd, the coroner will write to the relevant prosecuting authorities - the Attorney-General and the Director of Public Prosecutions - to determine whether any further steps can be taken in the interests of justice.

Will the inquests for Dodi and Diana be held together?

Inquests into the deaths of those who die in the same incident e.g. the Marchioness disaster on the River Thames in 1989, are usually held together or concurrently.

This makes sense where the same circumstances contributed to the deaths and it saves public money.

It seems likely that this course will be followed by Lady Butler-Sloss.

Will there be a jury?

Juries are rare in inquests. They are appointed in about 3% of cases.

Cases where it is mandatory for a coroner to appoint a jury are prescribed by law.

There are four: deaths in prison; deaths in police custody or as a result of injury inflicted by the police; a death which is legally reportable to a government department or to the Health and Safety Executive; a death occurring in circumstances prejudicial to public health or safety.

A coroner may also decide to sit with a jury in cases where he or she thinks there is reason to do so.

If Lady Butler-Sloss believes the deaths of Diana and Dodi fall within any of these categories, she must sit with a jury. Otherwise, it is at her discretion.

If there is a jury, who is will sit on it - members of the royal household or the public?

Lady Butler-Sloss has decided that any jury will be made up of members of the public.

The key factor in determing whether a jury of the royal household should sit is whose jurisdiction the inquest comes under.

Princess Diana and Dodi Al Fayed
A joint inquest into the deaths of Diana and Dodi is thought likely

The Coroners Act 1988 says that where the body of the deceased lay " within the limits of the Queen's Palace" or within any other house or grounds where the Queen was staying, then the Coroner of the Queen's Household should have exclusive jurisdiction over the hearing.

Diana's body lay in the chapel of St James's Palace before her burial, so her death would fall within that definition.

But it is still a matter for the coroner alone to decide a) whether there should be a jury or not and b) if yes, whether it should consist of members of the royal household or members of the public.

When was the last time there was a royal inquest?

It is thought to have been the inquest into the death of Prince William of Gloucester, who died in an air crash in 1972.

Are we likely to hear more sensitive information revealed?

There may be attempts by the Al Fayed legal team to bring in sensitive information i.e. allegations that Diana and Dodi were murdered, but Lady Butler-Sloss will set out the ground rules for the full inquest during this High Court hearing and they will almost certainly oblige the parties to stick to matters strictly relating to the 'who, when, where and how' formula.

How long will the procedure take?

The High Court hearing is set down for two days.

It is up to Lady Butler-Sloss to set the date for the inquest proper. The length of that will depend on the number of witnesses called.

Will the inquest put things to rest?

It is always possible to seek a judicial review of an inquest verdict and given Mr Al Fayed's determination to maintain a public focus on the deaths of his son and Diana, it is highly likely that he will use every legal avenue to do so.

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