Andrew Stephen Hall, a black man from Huddersfield, died in the town’s Royal Infirmary on 13th September, 2016. He was 43 years old and his admission to hospital followed an episode in West Yorkshire Police (WYP) custody at the local police station and an earlier visit to the Accident and Emergency Department (A & E) of the same hospital.
From documents filed at the High Court, these are the circumstances noted in submissions and are not the subject of factual dispute by any party to those proceedings:
In the early hours of that same September day, Mr Hall was found collapsed at home by his partner, Natalie Dyer. He had taken prescription medication and drunk alcohol. When paramedics attended, he was unresponsive and was taken to A & E where he received further medication and his condition appeared to improve.
He became agitated, however, and was alleged to have slapped a nurse. Ms Dyer says in a witness statement that this occurred because he was disorientated, frustrated and panicking. As a result of the incident, he was removed from the hospital to the nearby police station in the town centre, arriving at about 7.30 am.
At 8.35 am, Mr Hall was taken to a custody area and his handcuffs were removed. He told officers that he was feeling unwell and was going to be sick. He was taken to a cell where he could vomit. He was assessed by a male custody nurse at around 10am and, thereafter, taken back towards the cell by three officers. In transit, he freed one of his arms and grabbed a barred gate. During the ensuing struggle, at least one of the officers struck Mr Hall multiple times. He may have struck back. By 10.18 am the officers had restrained him and returned him to his cell. The custody nurse observed the later stages of what happened to Mr Hall during the altercation and he was of the view that the detained person needed to be taken back to hospital.
Paramedics attended the police station at 10.42 am and Mr Hall was returned to hospital in handcuffs and leg restraints. He was sedated, medicated and arrangements were made for him to have a computerised tomography (CT) scan. Whilst waiting for this procedure his condition deteriorated and clinical staff could not feel a pulse. Cardiopulmonary resuscitation (commonly termed as CPR) was performed, but he was declared dead at 12.44 pm.
Andrew’s death, therefore, occurred shortly after he had been in police custody and restrained. Because of the prevalence of such incidents across the wider police service, dating back many years, there is significant public interest in an inquest into the death of a black man in these circumstances. The recent surge of publicity surrounding the Black Lives Matter campaign is ample demonstration of that.
Sixteen police officers are expected give evidence at the delayed inquest, to be held later this year. Anonymity was originally sought for fifteen of them, a number, seemingly, reduced to thirteen by the time the matter reached the appeal court.
Applications for anonymity
In March 2019, the WYP chief constable made an application to Her Majesty’s Coroner for West Yorkshire (Western) for anonymity for three of his officers and, also, for them to give evidence from behind screens. The ranks of those officers are, as yet, undisclosed.
A similar application followed from the Police Federation, on behalf of twelve of their members (officers holding the rank of constable up to chief inspector).
The application for anonymity was not contested by Mr Hall’s family and an Order was made, by the coroner, Oliver Longstaff, together with Orders that the CCTV footage featuring the officers will be modified so their names cannot be heard and their faces will be pixelated. The coroner, jury and legal representatives of the family will have access to unedited copies of the CCTV.
The applications for police officer evidence to be given from behind screens were, however, resisted by the bereaved family. The coroner heard these applications on 6th June 2019. He had two statements from WYP’s Inspector Danny Rotchell, together with his risk assessment; open statements from three officers and closed statements from other officers. The applications were grounded on the premise that if officers were seen, they might be identified and if so, they might be identified either by, or to, Andrew Hall’s brother, Qassim. He has a lengthy criminal record, is well known to the police in Huddersfield and records show that he has a history of making threats.
Qassim Hall was not one of the family members involved in the applications before the coroner, the subsequent judicial review and the consequent appeal to the Court of Appeal. He has not, so far, attended any of the hearings.
The named claimant (or respondent) in those proceedings is Andrew Hall’s partner (and the mother of one of his children). She was, in effect, acting with, and on behalf of, six other members of his family including his mother (Pamela Hall), father (Franklyn Lindor), three siblings (Tracey Nash, Daniel Priestley and Bianca Priestley) and an adult son (Joseph Hall), collectively referred to by the various courts as ‘the family’.
The coroner’s ruling
The coroner ruled, in the event, that the police officers giving evidence would be screened from the public (including accredited members of the press) and the family, but be fully visible to himself, the jury and the legal representatives of all the interested parties.
He stated that the wealth of competing legal authorities presented to him by counsel for all those parties demonstrated that, first and foremost, applications of this nature are ‘immensely fact-sensitive’.
Instinctively, the coroner said, the proposition that the family of the deceased who has died, in circumstances that call into question the State’s discharge of its obligations under Article 2 of the European Conventions on Human Rights [ECHR], should not see the agents of the state implicated in that death ‘offends what can be appropriately described as natural justice, in the sense of the fair and impartial application of law and procedure to all parties to a particular legal process.’
‘That instinct was all the stronger where the application was not based on any sufficient evidence or intelligence reflecting adversely on the family members most likely to be affected,’ adding that there was no basis upon which the Rule 18 power (under the Coroners (Inquests) Rules, 2013) could be exercised other than in respect of the perceived danger said to be posed to officers by Qassim Hall.
The coroner found that proposition credible, referring to Hall’s convictions for violence and history of making threats, including to kill. He accepted that Qassim blamed the police for Andrew Hall’s death and that the police officers had a genuine fear that if identified it would create a risk of harm to them, or their families, from the actions of Qassim Hall. He further accepted that in the case of some of the officers, these fears were affecting their health, and will continue to do so, unless steps are taken to minimise the risk. Hugh Davies QC and Brian Dean, of counsel, had both submitted, in terms, on behalf of the chief constable and Police Federation respectively, that the officers’ fears were not irrational but could be characterised as subjective fears that were objectively justified.
The coroner accepted the submission of Leslie Thomas QC, on behalf of the family, as to the presumption that evidence would not be given from behind a screen and said that Coroner’s Rules permits a departure from that presumption if he determined that the use of screens was likely to improve the quality of the evidence of the officers, or allow the inquest to ‘proceed more expeditiously’. (The sharp-eyed may have noted that the Rule, as drafted, refers to expedience not expedition).
He went on to conclude that permitting the officers to give evidence from behind a screen would be likely to improve the quality of their evidence overall. Witnesses who are fearful for their safety, or the safety of their families, in the event that they are identified, were more likely to be straightforward and forthcoming in their evidence if confident they will not be identified. He had considered whether the use of screens would impede the questioning of any witness and concluded that the retention by the family of a leading QC obviated the risk of any such impediment.
The coroner emphasised that his starting point was the interests of justice, generally, and of anyone concerned in the legal process ‘are best served when those charged with making findings of fact, and reaching conclusions based upon those findings, are able to do so on the basis of the best evidence’ and that, in this case, the best evidence will be given if the police officers give evidence from behind screens.
He confirmed that his decision cast no doubt, or aspersion at all, on the good character of the bereaved family, but his decision was based upon what he perceived as the genuine risk posed by Qassim Hall to the officers and their families.
Delay to inquest
The inquest touching the death of Andrew Hall was listed to commence on 4th November, 2019 at Bradford Law Courts.
That date was vacated as a result of the extant legal proceedings challenging the coroner’s decision and, subsequently, the decision of the High Court in respect of that ruling.
It will now be heard in April 2021, if and when the effects of the virus crisis are mitigated. Multi-handed hearings, before a jury and with large numbers of court staff, lawyers, security, witnesses, reporters and public to be accommodated, pose their own set of problems.
The next hearing will take place on 19th February, 2021. It is listed as a pre-inquest review before Mr Longstaff. Presumably, one of the issues to be resolved is a date for the final hearing of the inquest.
The judicial review application by the Hall family
On 11th October, 2019, Mrs Justice Jefford sitting in the Administrative Court in Leeds heard an application from Mr Hall’s family opposing the coroner’s directions in relation to the screens.
It is worth setting out the grounds in full as they articulate some of the recurring concerns of bereaved families, across a broader portfolio of deaths following police contact, particularly as anonymity orders and screening of police officer witnesses is now an increasing trend:
Ground 1: “The coroner misdirected himself, in that he failed to recognise (i) the fundamental importance of open justice and to give it great weight; (ii) the particular importance of open justice in this inquest, as it involves a controversial death in police custody of a black man following police restraint; (iii) that his decision interfered with the rights of the press within Article 10 of ECHR; (iv) that screening is only permitted in exceptional circumstances; and (v) that in this context screening, particularly screening of all factual police witnesses, is a serious incursion into open justice.”
Ground 2: “The decision to screen the 16 officers from the family and public was a greater intrusion into open justice than was strictly necessary. It follows from the coroner’s ruling that here was no rational basis for screening the witnesses from anyone other than Qassim Hall. There was a less intrusive means of achieving the aim pursued, which was to screen the witnesses from him alone.”
Ground 4: “The coroner proceeded on the basis that screening is permitted if that would improve the quality of evidence, and thereby misdirected himself.”
Ground 5: “The decision was not compatible with the procedural duty within Article 2 ECHR; was not correct as a matter of common law; or alternatively was disproportionate.”
The family was refused permission to apply for judicial review on ground 3 and, as such, it does not appear in the list above. HHJ Philip Kramer, sitting as a judge of the High Court, granted permission in respect of grounds 1,2,4 and 5.
As the hearing unfolded, grounds 1 and 4 were argued together, and the judge said it was first necessary to address the legal framework. There was no dispute that the principle of open justice is a fundamental tenet of common law, as applicable in a coroner’s court as in any other court, citing, inter alia, R (T) v West Yorkshire Senior Coroner  EWCA Civ 318;  2 WLR 211.
She then set out the different facets of the principle, including the ability of those present in court to see and hear the evidence being given. She stated that she did not consider it particularly helpful to frame any incursion into the principle of open justice as only allowed in exceptional circumstances. Her analysis was that: “where there is a balancing exercise to be undertaken, particular weight is to be attached to this fundamental principle and one of the consequences of attaching particular weight to that consideration is that the incursion into openness should be no more than necessary.”
The judge set out the four reasons advanced on behalf of the Hall family as to why the use of screens was a significant incursion into open justice: “(i) it undermines the effectiveness of the investigation because the public would not be prompted to bring forward further evidence; (ii) the observing of the witnesses is an important part of the investigative process (not limited to the process undertaken by the decision makers); (iii) preventing the witnesses being seen undermines public confidence in the process; (iv) not being able to see the witnesses reduces the prospect of catharsis for the family of the deceased.” She noted that no further reliance was placed on the first point but the family continued to rely on the remainder.
She further noted that being able to see a witness give evidence is an important factor in assessing demeanour and credibility. She said that, nonetheless, screening was common in criminal trials because the courts had recognised both the needs of vulnerable witnesses and innocent bystanders giving evidence in difficult circumstances – and the consequent benefit to the quality of their evidence from being made comfortable. This was not seen as undermining public confidence in the system of justice or the openness of the process. However, she added that the position being argued here was significantly different. In the case of an inquest such as this, the public interest in seeing the police officers, however they may have been involved in the events leading to the death of Mr Hall, was of a different nature and measure from the public interest in seeing a vulnerable complainant or witness give evidence – and the risk of undermining public confidence all the more obvious. She referred to the submission of Adam Straw on behalf of the Hall family that there must be such an overarching consideration because of the fundamental importance of the principle of open justice. She also noted his submission that, by following the Rules, the coroner had failed to weigh in the balance the fundamental importance of open justice.
The judge then set out why she considered it was right that the principle of open justice must always have a place in the decision making process and be given appropriate weight in the balancing exercise between potential benefits and detriments of screens and went on to say that it by no means followed that the coroner had misdirected himself in law, for two reasons she identified: Firstly, she noted the opposing arguments had been fully ventilated at the hearing, before the coroner, so it could not be said that Mr Longstaff was not aware of the matters the Hall family averred should be taken into account. Secondly, the coroner’s decision had to be read “with a degree of benevolence or pragmatism” and that the coroner must be taken to have in mind all of the arguments made by counsel, even if he did not set out each of them in detail. If he took account of the relevant factors, he could not be said to have misdirected himself in law, even if he did not articulate the legal principles in the way counsel for the Hall family would have formulated them.
In her judgment, she took the view that the coroner was entirely correct in saying the police application for screening was based upon the fears that Qassim Hall would seek to harm them and found that threat credible and the fears genuine.
She recorded the family’s view that what the coroner did was set out the competing submissions but did not then evaluate the comparative importance of the various factors or weigh them against each other. That is to say: Quality of the evidence weighed in the balance with the interests of open justice.
The judge found that his references to ‘the principles of natural justice’ were clearly in context references to ‘the principles of open justice’ and said, further, that the coroner had made clear his instinctive difficulty or discomfort with the proposition that the family would not see the witnesses implicated in Andrew Hall’s death if their evidence was given from behind screens. It was also found that the ruling in which the coroner considers all the circumstances of the case, may well be read as having inherent in it a balancing exercise in which the principle of open justice played a part.
The judge concluded in relation to grounds 1 and 4 that the coroner did misdirect himself in law and the challenge on the basis of ground 1 succeeded. The family’s position was, in those circumstances, that the judge should make her own decision about the use of screens if she considered there was only one possible outcome, but she could remit the matter back to the coroner if she thought there was a range of possible outcomes. She noted that there was no real dispute that, from the police perspective, it was the appropriate course. To deal with this issue, she considered it easiest to address what her decision would have been on grounds 2 and 5 had she not concluded that the coroner had misdirected himself.
Ground 2 involved a Wednesbury irrationality challenge, that even if the coroner did not misdirect himself, his decision was irrational essentially on the basis that less intrusive measures could have been directed, such as directions to screen the officers from Qassim Hall only, or to restrict his entry to the courtroom. It was said by the Hall family that, even if screens to protect the officers from the view of the general public was rational, it was irrational to direct screens that prevented the family members from seeing the officers give evidence.
Ground 5 was argued with ground 2 because it was similar. It was contended that the decision was neither compliant with the common law duty of fairness nor with the ECHR Article 2 procedural duty. Both grounds raising the same broad argument that the coroner’s direction was a disproportionate measure. Article 2 procedural duty requires that there be a sufficient element of public scrutiny of the investigation to secure accountability, maintain public confidence and prevent any appearance of collusion or tolerance of unlawful acts: The family must be able to participate effectively in the inquest. The judge recognised that this did not extend to the family having a right to cross-examine, or it would seem, a right to observe witnesses giving evidence, but the interest in doing so remains a factor to be taken into account.
The judge said that it was common ground that the decision as to compliance with the common law duty of fairness and/or proportionality was one for the court rather than an irrationality challenge. She said that if she considered the use of screens irrational, it would follow that she would conclude that it was not in accordance with common law principles and was a disproportionate incursion into the Article 2 procedural duty. In each instance, it was open to her to substitute her own decision, which she understood to be common ground.
The judge then set out details of Qassim Hall’s lengthy criminal record and history of making threats. It is not necessary to set out the detail of those findings, as none of the parties has sought to challenge the coroner’s finding that the threat from Qassim Hall was credible and the officers’ fears of being identified by him genuine.
Other than an alleged incident, the day after he had been told of his brother’s death, when Qassim Hall is said to have attempted to climb over the gates of Huddersfield police station (of which incident the police had no record) there was no further evidence that, in the three years since Mr Hall’s death, Qassim Hall had taken any steps to identify or threaten any of the officers. Before the coroner Hugh Davies QC, on behalf of West Yorkshire’s chief constable, had made very clear that none of the other Hall family members represented a threat to the officers or would, themselves, breach the anonymity order. What was contended was that the family members were vulnerable to forced extraction of the identity of the officers. Set against this is the fact of the family already knowing the identity of two of the officers and there was no suggestion they had disclosed that information to Qassim Hall.
The judge referred to the fact that Qassim Hall was not estranged from his family and to two incidents, one in which his mother was charged with violent disorder in 2005, whilst attempting to prevent his arrest and another when she was arrested but not charged when Qassim and his partner were under investigation for harassment. The judge described these as: “the high point of the evidence that a named family member might become engaged with Qassim Hall, out of a sense of loyalty, in steps against the officers by disclosing their identity or otherwise.”
The judge said in the ‘Discussion’ section of her judgment that the coroner made a rational judgment that the quality of the evidence of the officers was likely to be improved by screens and that the quality of the evidence must necessarily be a weighty factor but quashed the coroner’s decision to permit screens to the extent that the screens prevent the identified family members from seeing the officers give evidence. However she decided on the entirety of the evidence that the coroner’s directions as to screens should continue to apply to officers identified as ‘C’ and ‘N’. The reasons for drawing this distinction were not set out.
She concluded that the screening of all the officers from the family was not in accordance with the common law duty of fairness and was a disproportionate measure. The argument that the family would both identify the officers and breach the anonymity order, for which there was no evidence, was wholly speculative.
The appeal to the Court of Appeal by the police
The grounds of appeal of the Chief Constable are that Mrs Justice Jefford’s decision in her judicial review was wrong for the following reasons:
- She misdirected herself as to law
- She made irrational and/or inconsistent conclusions.
- She failed to apply the common test on facts as found.
- She wrongly concluded that Article 3 was not engaged and/or that, whether or not it was engaged, the only rational order was to permit defined family witnesses to see the anonymised witnesses.
As one might have expected, there was a considerable overlap between those grounds and those advanced by the Police Federation which were as follows:
- The judge erred in ruling that the coroner had not taken account of the principle of open justice.
- In reaching that conclusion and substituting her own decision, the judge made errors of law and misdirected herself.
- Having reached her erroneous conclusion, the judge wrongly substituted her own findings on the evidence and minimised or dismissed evidence that was uncontested. She reached conclusions that are inconsistent and unsupported by any rationale.
- The judge failed to rule appropriately or at all on important submissions in particular as to Article 3, failed to consider the risks to the officers’ families at all and having substituted her own views as to the (un)likelihood of disclosure by force or threat, failed to consider the risk of inadvertent disclosure.
- Overall the judge was wrong to find that in the case of 14 out of the 16 witnesses, the balance came down in favour of allowing the family to see the witnesses.
At the outset of his submissions on behalf of the Chief Constable, Hugh Davies QC emphasised that the course which the coroner had adopted, that the officers would be screened from the public and the family but be fully visible to the coroner, the jury and the legal representatives, and the redaction and pixelation of the CCTV footage, so far as the public and family were concerned, was entirely compliant with the Article 2 procedural obligations on the State in relation to the investigation into the death of Mr Hall.
Mr Davies QC submitted that the order for anonymity recognised that Qassim Hall posed an objective threat and an indiscriminate risk to the officers and their families. The risk assessment by Inspector Rotchell, a qualified professional, was that Qassim Hall was a threat of harm in the limited area of Huddersfield. He continues to offend and express views antithetical to the police. The assessment by Mrs Justice Jefford that, if the public were able to see the officers give evidence, there was a real risk of identification by, or to, Qassim Hall, but that the family were in a different position, would not stand scrutiny. He had a background of mental instability and there was a real risk that if the family could see the officers give evidence, Qassim Hall would learn that the family had seen the witnesses and seek to obtain information about them, with an increased risk to them of his putting pressure on them to extract that information. Contrary to the judge’s conclusion that this was “pure speculation”, it was, he said, a real risk. The judge’s conclusion was contrary to the coroner’s finding that the threat to the officers and their families from Qassim Hall was “credible”.
Although in his opening submissions to the Court of Appeal, Mr Davies QC put the case on behalf of the Chief Constable on the basis of both the common law and Articles 2 and 3 of the ECHR, during the course of the hearing he accepted that (as Leslie Thomas QC for the Hall family had correctly pointed out) the application before the coroner was in the end one of common law . Article 2 was, accordingly, not relied upon further and Mr Davies QC accepted that Article 3 had been “put on the shelf”.
Ultimately, the real complaint levelled by the Chief Constable against the judicial review judgment was in relation to the judge’s categorisation of the threat or risk as “pure speculation” which amounts to a rejection of any objective justification.
So far as concerns the correct construction of Rule 18 of the Coroner’s Rules, Mr Davies QC adopted the submissions of Jonathan Hough QC on behalf of the coroner, which are summarised below.
Mr Davies QC submitted that the reference in the coroner’s ruling to “a balancing of competing interests between the officers and the family”, in the context of the ruling as a whole, could only be to the competition between the family’s open justice expectations and the position of the officers, which was the whole point of the competing submissions. He said that whilst the judge had recognised that the ruling should not be subjected to minute dissection, that was the outcome which the judgment had produced. The judge had adopted a narrow contextual analysis of the ruling. Whilst it was accepted that the coroner had arguably not gone through a “pre-flight check list” in relation to the competing interests of open justice on the one hand and the concerns of the officers on the other, Mr Davies QC submitted that the coroner had dealt with the competing interests adequately and the judge had been wrong to substitute her own decision.
On behalf of the Police Federation, Helen Malcolm QC indicated that the only area where her submissions diverged from those of Mr Davies QC was that she contended that both Articles 2 and 3 of the ECHR were engaged fully. She submitted that the real question was not whether Article 3 was engaged as a matter of law, but how the protective duty of the state under Article 2 was to be satisfied. This concerned the balance to be struck between the state’s obligation to protect the officers and the state’s obligation to ensure that the family have access to the extent it is possible. She submitted that, contrary to the judge’s conclusion, the coroner had engaged in an appropriate balancing exercise and had given important weight to the principle of open justice in his ruling, where the reference to “natural justice” was clearly intended to be to “open justice”. The suggestion that he had not taken it into account at all was just not sustainable.
Ms Malcolm QC submitted that the judgment was riddled with public law errors. After the hearing she and her junior counsel, Brian Dean, helpfully compiled a Note setting out these errors. It is not necessary to enumerate all of them but two of them seemed to be of particular significance. The first is that the judge mis-characterised as “submissions” matters which formed part of the coroner’s decision in his ruling. The second is that, although the judge accepted the coroner’s findings on the evidence as to genuine fear and concern of the officers, she then minimised the risks and apostrophised the professional risk assessment of Inspector Rotchell as “wholly speculative” or “pure speculation”. Whether these are “public law errors” or just errors or inconsistencies in the judgment may not matter.
Ms Malcolm QC submitted that it was illogical for the judge to say at  of her judgment that there was a greater risk from the officers being seen by the general public than from there being seen by the family who were those who were closest to Qassim Hall and were in communication with him. She submitted in this context that the coroner and the Court would be entitled to take into account not only the risk of disclosure by family members of the officers’ identity as a consequence of pressure from Qassim Hall but also the risk of inadvertent disclosure.
She submitted that the judge had misunderstood the purpose of an inquest which was not to provide “catharsis” for the family or to allow them to assess the demeanour of the officers giving evidence, although that may be its welcome effect. Ms Malcolm QC emphasised that the inquest was not a blame-laying exercise, however much the family might want it to be, and that the family had no right to cross-examine witnesses other than with the permission of the coroner. She submitted that, in an inquisitorial process such as an inquest, getting the best evidence was of particular significance. It was in the public interest for the best evidence to be available to the fact-finder and that public interest was actively served by making life comfortable for the officers giving evidence. If there was no blame on them, then it was right and proper to protect them. If there was blame, the correct forum for that issue to be resolved was a criminal trial, not the inquest. She submitted that the coroner had to have an eye to the future. If the officers were identified and then threatened or harmed, it was less likely that there would be a full and proper criminal trial. The officers would be less able or willing to give evidence.
On behalf of the coroner, Jonathan Hough QC adopted a neutral stance as to the outcome of the appeal but he sought to assist the Court on two aspects of the case: (i) the correct interpretation of Rule 18 and (ii) the nature and content of the ruling.
He reminded the Court that prior to the enactment of Rule 18, there was no full procedural code and thus no statutory rule in relation to the use of screens in inquests. Any orders for screens were made under inherent common law case management powers. Before the Rules were made, in March 2013 the Ministry of Justice issued a consultation on coroners’ rules and regulations which attached draft Rules. The draft Rule 18 was similar to the current version, except that (i) sub-rule (2) only referred to improving the quality of the witness’s evidence as a basis for a screening determination; and (ii) sub-rule (3) did not make reference to national security interests as a factor in the determination. Following the consultation, the Ministry issued a response paper in which it explained: “We have amended rule 18 to allow the coroner to permit screened evidence only where this would be [i] likely to improve the quality of the evidence, or [ii] is in the interests of justice or [iii] national security.” The Rules were then laid before Parliament and passed in their current form.
Mr Hough QC submitted that the use of the word “may” in sub-rule (1) indicates that this is a discretionary power. Sub-rule (2) provides for a threshold condition that the discretion can only be exercised if the coroner determines that either giving evidence from behind screens would be likely to improve the quality of the witness’s evidence or “allow the inquest to proceed more expediently”. The “determination” referred to in sub-rule (3) is that determination made under (2) but it requires the coroner to have regard to all the circumstances of the case including the interests of justice and national security. He submitted that, contrary to the judge’s view, “expediently” should be given a relatively broad meaning of “appropriately” and not limited to convenience or practicality. This made internal sense of the Rule and meant that a determination that the giving of evidence from behind screens would allow the inquest to proceed more appropriately was a threshold condition. The consideration of what was most appropriate brings in the wider issues of what is in the interests of justice or national security.
He submitted that if “expediently” is given the narrow meaning which the judge seems to have favoured, serious practical problems are created since it is difficult to see how a coroner could order screens for national security or operational reasons (for example in relation to witnesses from the security services or under-cover police officers) if expedience was limited to convenience or practicality. This wider meaning was consistent with the use of the word expedient in other statutory contexts. Thus, the now repealed Tribunals of Inquiry (Evidence) Act 1921 permitted the public to be excluded from a hearing if “it is in the public interest expedient so to do for reasons connected with the subject matter of the inquiry or the nature of the evidence to be given.” Section 9A(2)(a) of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009 (a section added by amendment after the making of the Rules) provides that a coroner may require a juror to surrender an electronic communications device if the order “is necessary or expedient in the interests of justice”. Mr Hough QC submitted that if “expedient” bore only the narrow meaning of “practical”, it would be an oxymoron in each case.
Mr Hough QC submitted that consideration of both anonymity orders and screens orders engages the open justice principle. What is entailed is a fact-sensitive balancing exercise taking account of all the factors, including the fears of witnesses, even if objective justification is weak or lacking. He submitted that in practice a coroner will comply with the balancing exercise by posing three base questions: (i) would the screening order sought improve the quality of the evidence or be appropriate in all the circumstances; (ii) if yes, does the balance of competing interests, including those of the family, justify the order sought; and (iii) would there be an Article 2 or 3 risk (risk to the life of the witness or risk of serious harm to the witness) if the order were refused? If so, the order would usually be made.
He submitted that there were five particular features of the case which provided the context for the coroner’s ruling: (i) the case involved the controversial death of a black man in police custody following multiple restraint; (ii) there was substantial evidence that Qassim Hall had a lengthy history of crime, including violence, although not the most serious, and a propensity for persistent harassment. On the basis of that evidence and evidence that he blamed the police for his brother’s death, the anonymity orders were made; (iii) the other members of the family had no criminal history and there was no evidence that they posed a threat to the officers; (iv) there was evidence that the officers were fearful of giving evidence if they were identified; and (v) it was common ground that the coroner, the jury and the legal representatives will see the witnesses but that if the general public saw the witnesses there is a real risk of their being identified to Qassim Hall, as the judge found at paragraph 64 of her judgment.
Mr Hough QC then drew attention to the salient aspects of the ruling. The coroner had recorded that Mr Thomas QC objected in principle to screens but also argued that his clients, the Hall family, should see the officers. In the Decision section, the coroner recorded that these applications are immensely fact-sensitive and he recognised the importance of the matters set out in Rule 18(3). He made the points about the screening of the officers from the family offending “natural justice” (in other words open justice) so that, as Mr Hough QC submitted, the coroner was focused on the central issue of whether the family members should see the witnesses. He dealt efficiently with the evidence about the threat posed by Qassim Hall, concluding (i) that the threat was credible; (ii) that the officers had a genuine fear; (iii) that it was affecting their health and (iv) that it would continue to do so, none of which, Mr Hough submitted, was controversial.
He submitted that the ruling followed the scheme of Rule 18 and said that the coroner was trying to reflect the terms of Rule 18(2) which requires one or other threshold condition to be satisfied, not cumulative conditions; and (ii) the coroner took account of the interests of justice in the remainder of his decision. He concluded that the use of screens would improve the quality of the evidence, which nobody challenged. He further stated that the coroner set out that he could not make the determination without considering all the circumstances of the case, in particular the matters set out at Rule 18(3)(a) and (c). No issue of national security impacted on his decision.
He then considered the remaining limb of (3) at sub-section (b), the interests of justice, saying they were best served when fact-finders could make findings on the basis of the best evidence which would be achieved by the evidence being given from behind screens. Mr Hough QC submitted that the coroner used the words “to the extent” at the beginning of paragraph 48 of his ruling because he recognised that he was considering both a threshold consideration and a balancing exercise, not purely a balancing exercise.
The judge had concluded that the coroner had engaged in too limited a balancing exercise but Mr Hough QC submitted that he had, in fact, taken account of the interests of the family.
On behalf of the Hall family, Adam Straw emphasised the importance of the principle of open justice in the balancing exercise that has to be undertaken. He drew specific attention to what was said by the Court of Appeal in T at :
Mr Straw submitted that part of the purpose of open justice was that the family should see the police witnesses and be able to assess their demeanour when a central issue was whether they had an honest belief that Andrew Hall posed a threat whilst in their custody. Mr Straw was, however, unable to point to any legal authority which established specifically that part of the principle of open justice was to enable members of the public, or here the family, to assess the demeanour of witnesses. He submitted that not having sight of the witnesses will make it more difficult for the family to understand the decisions reached by the jury.
In relation to ground 1 of the appeal by the Police Federation, that the judge had erred in concluding that the coroner had failed to take account of the principle of open justice, Mr Straw submitted that whether the judge was wrong was a question of fact and the standard of review for this Court was whether the judge’s decision was clearly erroneous. He relied upon the analysis of the circumstances in which an appellate court can review findings of fact by a court of first instance and that the judge was clearly right that the coroner had not had regard to the powerful imperative of open justice.
He submitted that the judge had been correct to substitute her decision for that of the coroner as there was a balancing exercise in considering the duty of fairness to a witness and on a judicial review it was for the Court to decide for itself whether a measure was fair. Whilst due weight should be given by the Court to the decision of the coroner as the primary decision-maker, in this case very little weight should be given to his decision since he had misdirected himself as to the law.
Leslie Thomas QC made similar points in his oral submissions. Whilst he accepted that the family was not the decision-maker in the inquest, they play an important part. They could not grieve properly until they were able to look into the eyes of the person who took their relative’s life, as their solicitor Alice Stevens (of Broudie Jackson Cantor) made clear in her witness statement. He emphasised that because this case concerned the death of a black man in custody, there was a belief that the system was weighted against them and there could be a cover-up. There was no good reason why they should not see the witnesses and if they did not, far from being at the heart of the coronial system as the Explanatory Memorandum said, they would feel side-lined.
He submitted that the Chief Constable was simply wrong in taking exception to the judge considering race as a factor relevant to open justice. A principal purpose of open justice was to restore public confidence and there was always a high public interest in open justice in any case where someone was killed at the hands of police officers, particularly the death of a black man, of which there were a disproportionate number globally. There was a legitimate interest in knowing whether race played any part in this death.
In relation to the complaint by the police that the judge had erred in distinguishing screening from the family and screening from the wider public he submitted that the onerous threshold to which Mr Straw had referred had not been met. The family was a small group of known individuals and Inspector Rotchell had identified no threat from the family itself. Ms Dyer says that she has known for four years the identity of two of the officers, but she has never disclosed that information to Qassim Hall. The family has made clear that they will not disclose the identity of the officers to him and has provided undertakings to the court. By contrast, the wider public could be anyone who came into the public gallery. That person’s character or propensity was an unknown risk. The distinction the judge had drawn was a rational one.
Mr Thomas QC submitted that the judge was correct to conclude that there was no objective risk, that there was no evidence that the family will breach the undertakings and the assertion that they will be forced to do so by Qassim Hall is, as the judge, said pure speculation. The alleged risk was without evidential or objective foundation. It was not correct that the judge had failed to evaluate the subjective fears of the officers. She had correctly stated the common law test and concluded that the officers’ fears and concerns were genuine, but she was entitled to conclude that they had less weight because they were not objectively justified.
In relation to the suggestion by the Police Federation that Inspector Rotchell’s evidence was not contested, Mr Thomas QC said that ultimately the only risk relied upon was that Qassim Hall would somehow forcibly extract the information about the identity of the officers from the family – and even that was contested by the family. There was no evidence of any stronger risk and no evidence of any risk of inadvertent disclosure.
The starting point for the analysis of this appeal, said Lord Justice Flaux, must be to consider what is the correct construction of Rule 18 of the Coroner’s Rules. As was essentially common ground between counsel for both the police and the Hall family, the Rule is not happily worded, but the analysis of the Rule put forward by Mr Hough QC is the correct one. Rule 18(1) confers a discretion and Rule 18(2) then provides that one of two threshold conditions must be met before the discretion can be exercised: That the coroner determines that giving evidence behind screens would be likely to improve the quality of the evidence or that it would be likely to allow the inquest to proceed more expediently, or appropriately.
In making that determination a coroner has to consider all the circumstances of the case under Rule 18(3) and, in particular, the matters listed in (a) to (c). In agreement with Mr Hough QC, it can be said that if “expediently” bore the narrow meaning of efficiency or practicality, it is difficult to see how, in the case for example of evidence from the security services or undercover police officers, ordering the evidence to be given from behind screens, whilst in the interests of national security, could be said to allow the inquest to proceed more efficiently or in a more practical manner. On the other hand, if expediency is equated with allowing the inquest to proceed in the most appropriate manner, the coroner can give the proper consideration which (3)(b) requires him to give to the interests of justice and of national security.
The “interests of justice” clearly is and is intended to be a wide term which encompasses the principle of open justice. The importance of that principle has been emphasised in countless legal authorities in the higher courts.
The critical question for the Court, said Flaux LJ, is whether the coroner erred in law in concluding that an order for the officers’ evidence to be given behind screens was justified. In considering that question, it is important to bear in mind that, despite the attempt by Ms Malcolm QC to broaden the application, the application which was made to the coroner was under the common law and not under Articles 2 and 3 of the ECHR.
Furthermore, if the Appeal Court considers that the coroner did not err in law, then it must follow that the judge’s determination that he misdirected himself in law was wrong. The suggestion by both counsel representing the Hall family (Messrs Thomas QC and Sraw) that somehow this was a question of fact for the judge or that this Court should exercise the same caution in relation to reviewing the judge’s conclusion as we would if she had made findings of fact is wholly misconceived.
The determination of the critical question whether the coroner erred in law in turn depended upon whether he gave sufficient weight to the principle of open justice in engaging in the balancing exercise required by the common law test. As the judge herself recognised, the coroner’s decision must be read with a degree of benevolence or pragmatism.
It seems to me that this approach by the judge fails to take into account sufficiently the opening words of the coroner’s ruling: “To the extent that my decision has involved a balancing of competing interests between the officers and the family”. That is not a reference to what follows in the subsequent paragraphs, which does not consider those competing interests, but to what he has already said elsewhere in the earlier Decision section about those competing interests. In particular, the coroner identifies his instinctive concern that the proposition that the family of the deceased who died in circumstances calling into question the discharge by the state of its Article 2 obligations should not see the agents of the state implicated in his death whilst giving evidence offends the principle of “natural justice” (by which he clearly means open justice) and procedural fairness. He goes on to say the instinct is all the stronger where the application for the use of screens is not based on evidence or intelligence reflecting adversely on the family members most likely to be affected by it.
Those paragraphs do demonstrate that the coroner had well in mind the principle of open justice and that that principle would be offended if the family could not see the witnesses. In the circumstances, it cannot be said that he failed to appreciate the significance of the principle. What he then went on to do was to balance against the principle of open justice, and the interest of the family in seeing the witnesses, the fears of those witnesses of threats from Qassim Hall and their interest in not being identified to Qassim Hall. Thus, in my judgment, the judge was wrong to conclude that the coroner had only weighed against the quality of the evidence being improved by the use of screens the question of whether the effectiveness of questioning will be impeded by screens and thus engaged in too limited a balancing exercise. The judge has overlooked the earlier part of the Decision section where the competing interests were considered and balanced. This may have been overlooked by the judge because she appears to have erroneously characterised as submissions aspects of the ruling which were clearly part of the coroner’s decision.
Whilst the ruling is not expressed as clearly as it might be, the coroner did not err in law in failing to take proper account of the principle of open justice or engage in too narrow a balancing exercise. It follows that the judge was wrong to conclude that he had erred in law and to substitute her own decision for that of the coroner. Accordingly both appeals were allowed and the coroner’s order reinstated.
In the circumstances, Flaux LJ said it was not strictly necessary to consider the other criticisms of the judgment raised by the appellants but, nevertheless, he dealt with them relatively briefly: The principal matter was the judge’s distinction between what she recognised is the real risk that, if the general public could see the officers give evidence, the officers would be identified by or to Qassim Hall but the position of the family was very different and the suggestion that they may be forced by Qassim Hall to disclose the identities of the officers was “pure speculation”.
Despite Mr Thomas QC’s arguments to the contrary, Flaux LJ (and Lord Justice Lewison) agreed with Ms Malcolm QC that the distinction which the judge draws is an illogical one. Aside from Qassim Hall, or an associate of his going into the public gallery and identifying the officers (and in the case of an associate passing on information to him), it is difficult to see how a member of the public seeing the officers creates a real risk of identification to Qassim Hall whereas the members of the family who have that familial connection with Qassim Hall and are in communication with him do not create a real risk.
The professional risk assessment of Inspector Rotchell set out in his second statement was:
As already noted, the coroner referred to the fears of the officers that Qassim Hall would seek to harm them if made aware of their identity and he said that the Rule 18 power could only be exercised in respect of the threat said to be posed to officers by Qassim Hall. He found that threat to be credible and went on to make the further findings to which Mr Hough QC referred. Although the coroner dealt with the matter in a rather attenuated fashion, it seems that he was concluding that the fears of the officers were both subjectively genuine and objectively justified. By finding that the threat from Qassim Hall was credible, he was accepting the risk assessment of Inspector Rotchell that there was an objective threat to the officers from Qassim Hall. In the light of his evidence, the specific finding by the coroner (which was not challenged on the judicial review) and the fact that an order for anonymity was made by the coroner without objection from the family (itself a powerful indicator that the officers’ fears were objectively justified) the judge was wrong to conclude that the risk of Qassim Hall extracting the identity of the officers from family members was pure speculation. The risk and the threat he posed were objectively established.
As noted in the summary of the submissions of the parties, Mr Thomas QC advanced various reasons why the family should be able to see the police witnesses give their evidence pursuant to the principle of open justice. He referred to the fact that this was a case of a black man who died in custody (or rather immediately after having been in custody) in circumstances where the police as agents of the state were implicated in his death and there was a high public interest in open justice. That was a submission he also made to the coroner and the coroner clearly accepted the force of the submission in his findings, but he then had to balance that public interest (and interest of the family) against the interests of the officers: The balancing exercise in which he engaged was an appropriate one.
Mr Thomas also submitted that it was important for the family to be able to see the officers implicated in Mr Hall’s death in order to achieve catharsis. This does not seem to have been advanced as a distinct argument before the coroner. Whilst Ms Malcolm QC is, no doubt, right that achieving this purging for the deceased’s family is not the purpose of an inquest, the fact that the Explanatory Memorandum to the Rules states that one of the policy objectives of the reforms introduced by the 2009 Act is “to put the needs of bereaved people at the heart of the coroner system” demonstrates that, since one of those needs is likely to be the need for closure, this is an important matter to be taken into consideration. However, the coroner recognised the interests of the family but concluded on the balancing exercise that they were outweighed by the need to allay the fears of the officers to ensure that they gave the best evidence, itself an important aspect of the public interest.
Mr Thomas QC and Mr Straw emphasised that the family should be able to see the witnesses give their evidence in order to assess their demeanour. Mr Thomas QC did raise the question of demeanour before the coroner, but only in the context of pixelation of the CCTV footage so that the jury would not be able to assess the demeanour of the officers during the struggle with and restraint of Mr Hall, but the concerns he raised were addressed by ensuring that the coroner, jury and legal representatives see an “unredacted” version of the video footage. Counsel for the Hall family were unable to point to any legal precedent which considered that one of the reasons why the members of the deceased’s family, or members of the public more generally, should be able to see witnesses give their evidence is to assess their demeanour.
As was pointed out in the course of legal argument, recent decisions of the Appeal Court have cast some doubt on the extent to which assessment of demeanour by the Court is a reliable indicator as to credibility. However, whatever the values of or limitations as to assessment of demeanour, that assessment is for the fact-finder in any court, here the jury in the coroner’s court, and not for the family of the deceased. Mr Straw’s fall-back submission that unless the family could see the witnesses, they might not understand the decision reached by the jurydid not find favour. As Lewison LJ pointed out in argument, if the family thought a witness whom they could see was lying but the jury believed him, in one sense that poses a worse problem.
Accordingly, it was consider that none of the additional matters raised by Mr Thomas QC and Mr Straw affects the validity of the balancing exercise in which it was found that, contrary to the judge’s view, the coroner did engage.
Finally, it was recorded in the Appeal Court judgment that during the course of argument we raised with the parties the question of whether the media should be able to see the police witnesses. No real objection was raised on behalf of the police, but points were raised as to the safeguards that would need to be in place and matters such as undertakings by representatives of the media. In the circumstances, although if an application is made to the coroner by representatives of the media to see the witnesses give evidence, it will be worthy of consideration, the decision as to whether to accede to such an application and on what terms is one for the coroner.
For the above reasons, said Flaux LJ, the appeals of the Chief Constable and officers B and E and of the Police Federation and the officers it represents were allowed and restore the order for screens made by the coroner. Lewison agreed with his fellow law lord.
The dissenting judgment of Lord Justice Males
But the allowing of the appeal was not unaminous. Uncommon in both the civil and criminal appeals courts. The judgment of Males LJ is set out in full (apart from minor corrections). For anyone interested in deaths following police custody and inquest hearings it is a recommended read, providing useful additional detail about what happened in the lead up to the death of Andrew Hall and, more crucially, through the eyes of this journalist at least, the most lucid, well laid-out argument about the case and the points of law in issue. Without wishing, in any way, to demean Flaux LJ’s output, it is an outstanding piece of work (and learning) from Lord Justce Males:
“While I agree with much of Flaux LJ’s judgment, I have reached a different conclusion. To explain why, it will be necessary to travel over some of the ground which Flaux LJ has already covered.
When an application for witnesses at an inquest to be permitted to give their evidence behind a screen is based on fear for the witnesses’ or their families’ safety if their identity becomes known, there are two bases on which the application may be made. One is that the witnesses’ rights under Article 2 or Article 3 ECHR are engaged. The other is that screens are necessary in accordance with the common law principle of fairness.
As appears from cases such as In re Officer L  UKHL 36,  1 WLR 2135, there are material differences between an application invoking Convention rights and an application under the common law, albeit that both routes may, and often will, lead to the same destination. These differences may be summarised as follows:
The application for screens in the present case was made under the common law. Although some submissions were made to us based on Article 3, that was not a case advanced to the coroner and, as I have explained, it would have given rise to different considerations. It follows that we are concerned with the common law and our primary focus should be on the coroner’s decision.
At common law, open justice is always an important consideration to which, as a matter of law, substantial weight must be given (for example in R (T) v West Yorkshire (Western Area) Senior Coroner  EWCA Civ 318,  2 WLR 211 at para  referring to open justice as “the fundamental principle in respect of all proceedings before any court, including coroners’ courts” and at para  referring to “the powerful imperative of open justice”). Accordingly any derogation from open justice (including both anonymity and the use of screens) must have a clear justification and must go no further than is reasonably necessary.
I agree with what Flaux LJ has said concerning Rule 18 of the Coroners (Inquests) Rules 2013. Although in some respects not happily drafted, the terms of the Rule permit (and therefore should be read as requiring) the principle of open justice to be taken into account when making a decision as to the use of screens. Depending on the circumstances of the case, this may fall to be considered either (1) under Rule 18(3) when making the Rule 18(2) determination whether screens would improve the quality of the evidence or allow the inquest to proceed more expediently or (2) when considering the overall justice of the case after having made that determination. What matters is that it should be clear that the principle has been considered and given proper weight at some stage.
Where the coroner determines, after giving substantial weight to the need for open justice, that the use of screens is reasonably necessary, the inquest will be Article 2 compliant: Bubbins v UK (2005) 41 EHRR 24.
In considering whether there is justification for the use of screens, the purpose of the principle of open justice as applied to the facts of the case must be taken into account (T v West Yorkshire Coroner at para ). In the case of an inquest, one major purpose of open justice is to ensure public confidence in the fairness, thoroughness and transparency of the process. Referring to the state’s common law duty to investigate deaths of those in custody in R (Amin) v Secretary of State for the Home Department  UKHL 51,  1 AC 653 at , Lord Bingham’s summary of the purposes of open justice in an inquest into the death of a person in custody emphasises not only the importance of public confidence, but also the particular role of the bereaved family. The importance of that role is underlined by paragraph 7.1 of the Explanatory Memorandum to the Coroners (Inquests) Rules 2013, explaining that one policy objective of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009 was to “put the needs of bereaved people at the heart of the coroner system”. It is therefore not surprising that Rule 18(3)(a) requires the coroner to consider any views expressed by an interested person, which clearly includes the family of the deceased.
In the present case it was accepted (or at any rate not disputed) that the police witnesses should be anonymous. This was itself an important derogation from open justice which was necessary because Qassim Hall, the deceased’s brother, was found to represent a credible threat to the safety of the witnesses and their families if their names were known to him, and because the officers were genuinely fearful for the safety of themselves and their families and, in some cases, that fear was affecting their health. The need for anonymity was not challenged before the coroner and has been accepted by the family. The issue before the coroner was whether those concerns justified a further derogation from open justice, namely the use of screens. Before the coroner the family challenged the need for the use of screens at all, and their submission that witnesses should not be screened from family members (other than Qassim Hall) was merely a fallback position. It is therefore understandable, perhaps, that the principal focus of the coroner’s decision was on whether screens were necessary at all.
The family has not challenged in this appeal the coroner’s decision that it was necessary to screen the witnesses from the public in general (including, if he attends, Qassim Hall). That was because of the risk that if the witnesses were seen by the public, their identity would be disclosed to Qassim Hall. For my part I do not see any want of logic in saying that the witnesses should be screened from the public, but not from the family. If Qassim Hall is indeed anxious to discover the witnesses’ identity, it would not be difficult for him to ask an associate who is familiar with police officers in the Huddersfield area to attend on his behalf.
We are concerned only with the coroner’s decision that screens should prevent the family from seeing the witnesses give their evidence. It is important to note, however, as Flaux LJ has explained, that the family’s legal representatives will have sight of the witnesses while they give evidence and have been or will be given access to unedited CCTV footage which (we were told) shows in full the incident during which force was used on the deceased by police officers and when restraint was applied to him. We have not seen that footage, but we are told that it shows a struggle between Andrew Hall and a number of police officers extending over several minutes, in the course of which officers struck Mr Hall a number of times and there is some evidence of him striking back. The family and the public will see an edited version of that footage in which officers’ faces will be pixelated and their names will be “bleeped out”. The jury will see a further version of the footage in which there is no pixelation but officers’ names remain “bleeped out”. It follows that the family’s legal representatives will not be hampered in any way in conducting cross examination of the police witnesses by the existence of screens. Moreover, if it were to turn out that there is anything relevant to the cross examination which has been removed in the editing process, the family’s legal representatives will be in a position to cross examine about it, albeit that care will need to be exercised to ensure that what is said does not identify the officers concerned.
Accordingly the use of screens to prevent the family from seeing the police witnesses will not affect the efficacy of the investigation into Andrew Hall’s death. This case is not, therefore, about the ability of the family to have the evidence of those witnesses properly challenged. Whether or not screens are used, there will be a thorough investigation into the circumstances of his death in which the family’s legal representatives will be able to challenge the officers’ evidence and to suggest, to whatever extent is appropriate, that the use of force by the police was unlawful. The case is solely concerned with whether the family should be permitted to see that process as well as to hear it.
It is, therefore, necessary to consider how the purposes of open justice in inquest proceedings may be served by enabling members of the deceased’s family to see police officers whom they believe to be responsible for the deceased’s death give their evidence and the extent to which those purposes may be frustrated if the family is unable to see the officers do so.
This topic was addressed in the witness statement of Deborah Coles, an Executive Director of INQUEST, a charity which provides advice to bereaved people concerning contentious deaths, their investigations and the inquest process. Ms Coles has extensive experience acquired over 25 years of working with families of persons who have met their death at the hands of state agents. Under the heading of “The benefit for families of seeing important witnesses giving evidence”, she identified four overlapping benefits, which can conveniently be labelled “trust”, “demeanour”, “accountability” and “catharsis”. She said:
With the exception of what Ms Coles says in paragraph 8 of her statement about families placing weight on the demeanour and body language of a witness, I regard this as a compelling explanation of why it is important for family members to see the witnesses themselves in circumstances such as these and why it is not a sufficient alternative that their legal representatives may do so. As to demeanour, however, it is not the family’s role to determine whether the witnesses are telling the truth, that being the function of the jury, while in any event it has increasingly come to be recognised that demeanour and body language are an unreliable guide to truthfulness (see R (SS) (Sri Lanka) v Secretary of State for the Home Department  EWCA Civ 1391 at  to ). I have no doubt that in the present case the CCTV footage of the incident will be played many times during the cross examination of the police witnesses, if necessary in slow motion. The extent to which their evidence is supported by or consistent with that footage will be a far more reliable guide to whether they are telling the truth than their demeanour or body language.
For the family, Leslie Thomas QC placed considerable weight on the fact that Andrew Hall was black. He said that there was a particular and significant public interest in an inquest into the death of a black man in police custody, and that in such cases it is common for the bereaved family to believe that the system is weighted against them, that there is a cover-up, and that police officers are given special privileges. For that reason, he submitted, it is particularly important for the family to be able to see the police officers give their evidence.
For the Chief Constable, Hugh Davies QC took issue with this approach. He insisted that the race of the deceased is irrelevant and that there is a strong public interest in a full and transparent investigation into the death of any person in custody, regardless of their race. Accordingly the public interest in open justice, including the need to hold state agents to account, is no different in the case of a black man than in any other case. From this, it follows that the deceased’s race cannot provide a stronger case for the family to be permitted to see the police witnesses give evidence than if the deceased had been white.
It is of course correct that the strength of the public interest in a full and transparent investigation into the death of a person in custody does not vary according to the deceased’s race. That was not Mr Thomas’s submission. Such an investigation is essential in every case for the reasons given by Lord Bingham in Amin. But I would accept that the death of a black man in police custody gives rise to particularly acute concerns. That is because of the perception which Mr Thomas described. It would be idle to deny that this perception exists. There is no doubt that black communities have in general less confidence in the police than other sections of the community, and that on occasion distrust and lack of confidence have led to racial tensions and conflicts. For present purposes what matters is not whether the perception is well-founded, but rather the fact that it exists.
In these circumstances, it is entirely understandable that the family of Andrew Hall should wish not only to hear, but also to see the police witnesses when they explain why they believed it was necessary to restrain him with the use of force, including the striking of a number of blows, and to see those witnesses when they react to the case which seems likely to be put to them, that the force used was excessive and unlawful.
All this amounts, in my judgment, to a powerful case that the application of the open justice principle in the circumstances of the present inquest requires that they should be able to do so. If they are not permitted to see the police witnesses, there is a real risk that the inquest may not achieve all of the purposes which open justice is intended to promote. This does not necessarily mean that the application for screens should be rejected. But it does mean that a compelling justification will be required to sustain the coroner’s order that the witnesses be screened from the family’s view.
A threshold requirement which must be satisfied before screens can be used is that their use “would be likely to improve the quality of the evidence given by the witness or allow the inquest to proceed more expediently”. In this case the coroner based his decision on the fact that screens would be likely to improve the quality of the police witnesses’ evidence and he did not consider any question of expediency.
A witness’s subjective concerns may be relevant in two overlapping ways. The first, referred to by Lord Carswell in Officer L in the passage from  cited above, is that fairness requires that witnesses should not be subjected to fear, particularly if that affects their health, if that can be avoided. The existence of such fears is therefore a factor to be taken into account in the overall assessment. The second is that such fears may impede the witness, for example because he is distracted or pre-occupied, from giving his evidence to the best of his ability – in short, from doing himself justice.
The requirement that screens would be likely to improve the quality of a witness’s evidence is directed at the need for the inquest, in this case the jury, to have the best possible evidence in order to determine the matters which it is the purpose of the inquest to determine, namely who the deceased was, and how when, where and in what circumstances he met his death. This is distinct from allaying a witness’s subjective concerns, which is a separate factor in the balance.
While any likely improvement in the quality of a witness’s evidence is sufficient to satisfy the threshold requirement under Rule 18(2), and obviously it is desirable that the jury should have the best possible evidence before it in order to perform its task, the weight to be given to such a likelihood in the coroner’s overall evaluation whether there is sufficient justification to depart from the principle of open justice must depend on the circumstances of the case. It is necessary to consider what difference the use of screens is likely to make, for example whether any improvement in a witness’s evidence is likely to be significant or only marginal and to balance this against the need for open justice. In general, for example, police officers can be expected to have some degree of resilience when giving evidence. In the present case it should not be too difficult for the officers, assisted as they will be by the CCTV footage, to explain what they did and why they did it – as indeed they have already done to the IOPC investigation which cleared them of any wrongdoing. In the case of an important witness, such as a police officer who has used force on a person in custody, the fact that screens would be likely to improve his evidence only marginally (if that were the position) would be unlikely to carry much weight.
The justification put forward before the coroner for screening the witnesses from the family was a narrow one. The only risk on which the Chief Constable and the witnesses relied was the risk of harm caused by Qassim Hall who (it was accepted) should not see the witnesses. Moreover, at any rate by the conclusion of the hearing, it was not contended that any family member would deliberately or even inadvertently disclose information to Qassim Hall which would enable him to identify any of the officers. Rather, the case which was advanced was that family members would be vulnerable to force or threats of force by Qassim Hall. As Mr Davies put it in submissions to the Coroner on behalf of the Chief Constable and the officers whom he represented, his submissions being adopted by Mr Brian Dean who represented the remaining officers:
This was the only objective basis for the existence of a risk of harm on which the Chief Constable and the witnesses relied.
Accordingly the objective justification for the use of screens depends on the existence of a real risk that Qassim Hall would seek to exert pressure on family members to reveal information likely to enable him to identify one or more of the officers and that those family members would succumb to such pressure.
It is right to acknowledge that in summarising the arguments made to him, the coroner referred to the acceptance by Mr Dean, representing some of the police officers, of the fact “that the use of screens involves a significant departure from an important general principle of natural justice”, and to the submission by Mr Thomas that the family was “asking for no more than the application of the ordinary rules of natural justice”. It is plain that the coroner’s reference to “natural justice” meant (or at least included) the principle of open justice. Further, the coroner began the “Decision” part of his ruling, after acknowledging that applications for the use of screens were fact sensitive and required him to take into account the matters set out in Rule 18, as follows:
I would accept that these passages show that the coroner’s starting point was that the principle of open justice required that the family should be able to see the witnesses in question. He stated also that he accepted Mr Thomas’s submission that Rule 18 was expressed in terms making clear that the presumption was that evidence at an inquest should not be given from behind a screen.
So far, it might be possible to criticise the coroner’s ruling on the basis that he did not spell out that open justice is a principle to which substantial weight must be given or the corollary that the use of screens in the circumstances of the present case requires a compelling justification. Certainly he did not refer to the particular importance of transparency in the case of the death of a black man in police custody. However, if that criticism stood alone, it might not be fair to regard the coroner as having misdirected himself, having regard to the need to accord his ruling a benevolent interpretation. Clearly, having started from the point that “natural justice” required that the family should be able to see the witnesses, he was then correct to go on to consider whether there was a justification for departing from that position.
The coroner went on to find that the police witnesses were genuinely fearful for their safety and for the safety of their families and that, in some cases, those fears were affecting their health. There was, therefore, a finding of subjective fears which were having serious consequences for the officers concerned.
The coroner found also that these fears were credible, by which he meant objectively well-founded, in the light of Qassim Hall’s history including convictions for offences of violence against the police (albeit I would add, relatively minor violence) and a history of making threats of violence. It is important, however, to see precisely what it was that the Coroner found. There are two relevant paragraphs of his ruling, which I set out with my added emphasis:
Thus the coroner found that Qassim Hall presented a threat to the safety of the officers or their families if he became aware of their identity. But the coroner did not at any stage consider whether there was an objectively well-founded risk that permitting the family to see the witnesses give evidence would cause Qassim Hall to become aware of this. In view of the clear but limited way in which the Chief Constable and the officers had put their case, the question which the coroner ought to have considered was whether there was a real as distinct from fanciful risk that Qassim Hall would seek to extract this information from family members by force or threats of force and that they would succumb to those threats. If he had done so, there is in my judgment no basis in the evidence on which he could have concluded that there was such a real risk. There was no basis for thinking that Qassim Hall is so determined to wreak vengeance upon police officers that he is prepared to use violence or to make a credible threat of violence against members of his own family (clearly a threat which was less than credible would not have this effect). Indeed Inspector Danny Rotchell, who carried out a detailed assessment of the risks presented by Qassim Hall for the purpose of the hearing before the coroner, did not really address this possibility. Moreover, there was unchallenged evidence that some family members already know the identity of two of the officers but have not revealed this to Qassim Hall. There was no evidence that Qassim Hall has taken any steps to identify or threaten any of the officers who may have been involved in the events of his brother’s death on 13th September 2016 in the time which has since elapsed.
Accordingly, while the coroner’s findings about the risks presented by Qassim Hall are not challenged, they do not in my judgment justify a conclusion that there is an objectively well-founded risk of harm to the officers or their families. In my judgment the judge was right to say at  that “The suggestion that [the family] may be forced by Qassim Hall to disclose the identities of the officers is pure speculation”. Although her use of the word “speculation” was criticised, it is clear that what she meant was that there was no sound evidential basis for thinking that this might happen.
Having made his findings about the risks presented by Qassim Hall, the coroner went on to consider whether the use of screens would be likely to improve the quality of the officers’ evidence and to consider the matters set out in Rule 18(3). He concluded that the quality of the evidence would be improved, but did not expressly refer at this stage to the importance of open justice and its role in promoting the purposes of the inquest. He said:
In my judgment this ruling was flawed.
First, as already noted, the coroner did not treat the need for open justice as a factor to which substantial weight had to be given as a matter of law, in particular in a case concerned with the death of a black man in police custody, so that a powerful justification was needed to override this.
Second, the coroner appears to have lost sight of what had previously been his stated starting point, namely his instinctive view that the family should see the witnesses give evidence as a matter of natural justice “in the sense of the fair and impartial application of law and procedure”. Instead, by the time he came to make his decision, his new starting point was that the interests of justice generally were best served by allowing the use of screens when that would enable the witnesses’ best evidence to be given. That was an error in my judgment. The fact that the use of screens would be likely to improve the quality of the witnesses’ evidence was a necessary threshold but in itself was not a sufficient justification for their use. Nor did it establish a rebuttable presumption that screens should be allowed.
Third, it is clear that the coroner proceeded on the basis that there was an objectively well-founded risk of harm to the officers or their families from Qassim Hall when, for the reasons which I have explained, he was not entitled to do so. It is to be expected that this is a factor that would have carried considerable weight with him as no judge would wish to expose witnesses or their families to such a risk. Subjective fears, however genuine and even when having consequences on a witness’s health, carry rather less weight.
Fourth, while it is obviously desirable that a witness should be able to give his best evidence, there is a distinction between providing for the comfort and allaying the fears of a witness on the one hand and enabling the inquest to obtain the most reliable evidence on the other. So far as obtaining best evidence is concerned, the coroner did not consider whether or to what extent the concerns of the officers which would or might prevent them from giving their best evidence would have a material impact on the ability of the inquest to arrive at reliable conclusions. In the present case what the officers did will be apparent from the CCTV footage. Whether the force which they used was reasonable and proportionate on the one hand or excessive on the other is an objective question, which will likewise depend primarily on the CCTV footage. Their evidence will go mainly to the question whether they had an honest belief in the need to use the force which they used. The coroner did not consider how much difference the presence or absence of screens would make to their ability to give evidence on that issue, which would not necessarily be the same in all cases. The coroner has found that it would make some difference but it is hard to think, at least in some cases, that the difference will be significant. There can be no doubt that the officers will say, as no doubt they have already said to the IOPC investigation, that they honestly believed that their use of force was reasonable, necessary and proportionate in the circumstances as they perceived them to be. Accordingly, while the coroner was entitled to say that obtaining best evidence from the police witnesses was a factor in favour of the use of screens, and while in general the weight to be given to each factor was a matter for him, his decision contained no analysis of what difference the use of screens was likely to make to the ability of the inquest to arrive at the truth. Without such analysis, he was not in a position to decide how much weight to give this factor.
When these flaws are taken together, I do not think that the coroner’s decision can be saved by giving it a benevolent interpretation.
Accordingly the balancing exercise which the coroner ought to have carried out would have taken account of the following factors. Militating strongly against the use of screens was the principle of open justice for all the reasons which I have explained. Factors in favour of their use were (1) the subjective fears of the witnesses (which had not been shown to be objectively well-founded), (2) the fact that, in some cases, the witnesses’ health had been affected, (3) the fact that the use of screens was likely to improve the quality of the witnesses’ evidence, but the weight to be given to this factor would require some analysis, as above, and (4) the fact that the use of screens would not impede the effective testing of the witnesses’ evidence. It would also have been sensible to recognise that the order for anonymity and the fact that the officers would be screened from the public would go some way to alleviating any concern.
For these reasons I agree with the judge that the coroner misdirected himself. I do not agree, however, that this is a case where, undertaking the correct exercise, there is only one possible decision which could lawfully be made. Accordingly I consider that the judge was wrong to substitute her own decision whether screens should be used rather than remitting the decision to the coroner.
I would, therefore, set aside the coroner’s ruling together with the judge’s order and would remit the matter to the coroner to make a fresh decision in the light of this judgment. To that extent I would allow the appeal. However, I would not disturb the judge’s order in relation to Officers C and N, as there has been no appeal from that part of her decision.
I agree with what Flaux LJ has said regarding the reporting of the inquest. For my part, I can see no reason why representatives of responsible media organisations, who can be relied upon not to disclose information to Qassim Hall and to report the unlikely event of any threat being made to them by him, should not be permitted to see the police officers give evidence. That would go some way to promote the objectives served by the principle of open justice. However, I agree that it should be left to the coroner to deal with any application which may be made, or if appropriate to consider the matter on his own initiative.”
Alice Stevens, who represents the family, said after the judicial review hearing: “Andrew’s family have been patiently waiting for three years for a full and fearless inquest. Their priority has always been to find out how Andrew died in such tragic circumstances yet, as a result of anonymity and screening applications, they been subjected to background checks, numerous hearings and multiple legal aid applications.
Recent years have shown a rising trend in police officers seeking anonymity and screening at inquests in which their actions are called into question. This judgment rightly highlights the fact that open justice in inquests involving contact by state bodies should not be undervalued and that screening may undervalue public confidence and should not be granted without careful consideration. Andrew’s family will now be able to fully focus on Andrew’s inquest and try to obtain answers to the many questions that have surrounding his death.”
Although events have superceded that statement much of the sentiments expressed therein remain intact.
Deborah Coles, Director of INQUEST says: “We repeatedly see defensive and combative tactics by police lawyers in the growing number of anonymity requests at inquests. This is about justice being done and being seen to be done. Anonymity goes against the spirit of an open and transparent investigation and hinders scrutiny of public officials. This judgment recognises the significant public interest in deaths of black men in custody. Open justice is vital to assuage public concern about cover ups and to ensure accountability.”
The Hall family are working with INQUEST caseworker Anita Sharma. The Independent Office for Police Conduct are interested parties in the legal proceedings but have, so far, not been represented. The findings of their investigation, following the death of Andrew Hall, will not be made public until after the inquest.
This is an important case, very much in a town I know well, and with familiar faces on counsel’s ‘front row’. I will be following it from the press seats or, for the time being at least, via a rather more stark Cisco Webex Platform.
Other anonymity orders have, typically, been granted for police officers following fatal shootings. However, there has been a recent, creeping trend of anonymity applications being made, and granted, to police officers at inquests and misconduct hearings in other circumstances, such as where the death involved police restraint. This, say INQUEST, ‘is disproportionately the case where the person who died is racialised as black’.
Deaths of black men in police custody, or shortly after restraint, have, over the years, been highly controversial and have led to high profile public protests as well as protracted legal battles to uncover the truth over what exactly occurred.
Recent anonymity cases include the deaths of Rashan Charles, Edson da Costa and Henry Hicks. The first two were young black men.
Police officers were also granted anonymity following the fatal shootings of Azelle Rodney, Mark Duggan, Anthony Grainger and Jermaine Baker. Again, all highly controversial cases. I am particularly adjacent to Anthony’s shooting by Greater Manchester Police officers via his bereaved partner, Gail Hadfield Grainger.
West Yorkshire Police are also understood to be applying for anonymity for officers involved in the shooting of another Huddersfield man, Yassar Yaqub. He was shot through the windscreen of his car after a hard stop adjacent to the M62 motorway at Ainley Top in January, 2017. The inquest touching his death is listed for hearing in January, 2022 (read more here).
UPDATE: At the pre-inquest hearing on 19th February, 2021 it was revealed that the Hall family have appealed the Court of Appeal decision to the Supreme Court. The full report from that hearing can be read here.
Page last updated: Monday 22nd February, 2020 at 1035 hours
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