Categorized | Case Law

The Gareth Williams inquest

The Gareth Williams inquest

Last week the coroner in the Gareth Williams case delivered a damning verdict, highly critical both of the Metropolitan police’s counter-terrorism branch and MI6

Dr Fiona Wilcox levelled excoriating criticism at Williams’s employers at MI6 who failed to report him missing for seven days when he did not turn up for work. It took Williams’s sister, not his workmates, to call the alarm. Wilcox detailed what can only be interpreted as incompetence or callousness by his employers in respect of one of their young high fliers. And these are the very people who are supposed to be looking out for us.

Officers in the Met’s counter-terrorism branch were also strongly criticised. The Coroner’s catalogue of their evidential failings beggars belief. She said that despite a 21-month police inquiry most of the fundamental questions in relation to how he died remained unanswered. The cause of death of Williams, who was found padlocked in a holdall in the bath at his flat in central London, was, she said, “unnatural and likely to have been criminally mediated.” Scotland Yard has treated the death as suspicious and unexplained, but has tended to focus on sex play that went wrong. The coroner ruled out bondage or auto-erotic activity as explanations and was in no doubt that a third party had locked and placed the bag in the bath. She was “satisfied that on the balance of probabilities that Gareth was killed unlawfully.”

One significant point of all this is that if Ken Clarke’s Justice and Security Green Paper becomes law this inquest would almost certainly have been treated as a secret trial. The green paper proposes using “closed material procedures” to prevent sensitive intelligence being revealed in civil courts. Ministers would be able to make initial decisions about material that should be withheld. In some cases the full judgments would not be published at the end of a civil trial. There were enough security aspects in this case, including officers giving evidence anonymously, to fall within the government’s far too broad claim for secrecy. The SIS (and the Met) would have much preferred to avoid the publicity of the embarrassing criticism that came their way at the inquest.

Parliament’s joint committee on human rights (JCHR) produced a unanimously critical reponse to the green paper proposals. The Committee considered that proposals for reform, which are intended to provide the US with a cast-iron guarantee that any intelligence they share can never be disclosed in a UK court, cannot be justified, as such an aim is incompatible with the Government’s commitment to the rule of law. Dr Hywel Francis MP, Chair of the Committee, said: “Closed material procedures are inherently unfair and the Government has failed to show that extending their use might in some instances contribute to greater fairness. All other means should be pursued to allow proceedings to take place without resort to them.”

The Equality and Human Rights Commission’s submission on the green paper specifically addressed the question of inquests. The submission said: “Rather than seek to legislate for closed inquests that are likely to be incompatible with the requirements of article 2 ECHR” (European Convention on Human Rights), “greater attention should be paid to the experience of coroners and judges in managing inquests and inquiries and the variety of different practical measures that can be taken to enable sensitive material to be used without damage to the public interest.”

The proposal to allow closed material in inquests was put forward twice by the previous government, first in the Counter Terrorism Bill in 2008 and secondly in the Coroners and Justice Bill in 2009. On both occasions the proposals were withdrawn by the government following defeats in the House of Lords. Given that Parliament has already rejected the same broad proposals twice before, the Commission said: “It is unfortunate that the green paper puts forward little evidence to show that it is necessary to address this issue a third time.”

This post was written by:

- who has written 462 posts on Upper Case – The Anya Legal Journal.

Mike Gribbin is a retired Civil Servant with wide experience, including the drafting and implementation of Parliamentary legislation and regulations. He is the editor of “Criminal Offences Handbook”, a uniquely comprehensive guide to more than one thousand ways to fall foul of UK criminal law. He is Editor of the Upper Case Legal Journal and has been writing blog posts for the past eight years.

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