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Last Updated: Friday, 2 March 2007, 17:22 GMT
'Uncomfortable' ruling for coroner
By Jon Silverman
Legal analyst

Lady Butler-Sloss
Lady Butler-Sloss had ruled against a jury sitting in the case
Judges are used to seeing their rulings overturned by a higher court.

But it will be uncomfortable for a judge as senior as Dame Elizabeth Butler-Sloss to read some of the judicial criticisms of her decisions regarding the inquest into the deaths of Diana, Princess of Wales and Dodi Al Fayed.

According to the High Court, she was wrong in law to decide to sit without a jury.

And her reasoning that she should sit as the deputy royal coroner was flawed.

Public safety

Lady Butler-Sloss had argued that a jury would be unable to give the detailed, reasoned decision at the conclusion of the inquest that she could, sitting alone.

Juries are the exception rather than the rule in inquests.

But where there is an issue of public safety, it is mandatory for the coroner to sit with one.

In the judgment of the High Court, the deaths of Diana and Dodi, calling into question the behaviour of the paparazzi, are a matter of public safety and lessons may need to be learned.

Welcoming the judgment, Deborah Coles, co-director of the charity Inquest, said: "In a number of deaths, juries have been able to offer both a detailed scrutiny of what went wrong and make findings for the future.

"This has happened in complex cases where there have been numerous witnesses, so we found the argument put forward by Lady Butler-Sloss puzzling."

'Exciting and pleasing'

The second limb of her judgment, that she should sit as the deputy royal coroner, was also demolished.

Barrister Michael Powers QC called the High Court ruling "most exciting and pleasing".

"I noted that the judges mentioned the allegations that the Crown, or its agents, may have been implicated in the car crash," he said.

"In such a case, it would be inappropriate for the Crown's coroner to be presiding."

Re-examining the role of the paparazzi in hounding celebrities... may be the chief legacy of the inquest into Diana and Dodi's deaths
Jon Silverman

The judges will have been aware that in the government's draft Coroners Bill, the office of royal coroner will disappear.

But the issue of transparency and ensuring public confidence in the outcome of the inquest seems to have weighed more heavily.

Lady Butler-Sloss had erred in this respect, they implied.

The government has recently announced stronger powers for coroners to make recommendations where individual or systemic failings have been identified by an inquest.

Re-examining the role of the paparazzi in hounding celebrities, and especially the younger royals and their partners, may be the chief legacy of the inquest into Diana and Dodi's deaths.

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