Police anonymity argument set for Supreme Court

At a pre-inquest hearing on 19th February, 2021 it was revealed that a coroner’s ruling made in June, 2019 is now the subject of an appeal to the highest court in the land. It touches the death of a black man from Huddersfield, a large Pennine town in West Yorkshire. Andrew Stephen Hall was 43 years old when he died in the Royal Infirmary after an incident in the custody area of the local police station.

The hotly contested issue, a huge drain on public funds, is one of anonymity for the sixteen police officers who will give evidence at the inquest to be held in Bradford Crown Court. The ten week hearing is presently listed to open on 21st April, 2021 before Assistant Coroner for West Yorkshire (Western Area), Oliver Longstaff.

The matter of the use of screens to preserve anonymity has already been fully ventilated in the Administrative Division of the High Court in Leeds, in October 2019, before Mrs Justice Jefford, and then at the Civil Division of the Court of Appeal in London almost a year to the day later (read full history here).

Unusually, the three law lords were split on the appeal. Lord Justices Flaux and Lewison in favour of overturning the decision of the lower court. Lord Justice Males giving a dissenting judgment. It is assumed that the latter has given impetus to the Hall family’s challenge.

The pre-inquest heard that the delay in filing the detailed grounds supporting the appeal with the Supreme Court, made in timely fashion after the Court of Appeal hearing, was entirely due to delays in obtaining approval for funding from the Legal Aid Agency. The green light was given on or around 12th February. The Hall family is fronted, for legal purposes, by Andrew’s partner, Natalie Dyer, and her legal team is led by Leslie Thomas QC.

In the light of the impending Supreme Court appeal, Mr Thomas QC had made an application to the coroner to vacate the hearing in April, in view of the uncertainty of the appeal outcome and the impact it would have on preparation by the large number of legal teams involved in the process. He was, however, mindful of the impact that any further delay would have on other interested parties and those due to give evidence.

After hearing lengthy submissions on behalf of a large number of interested parties, and his own counsel, Marc Willems QC, the coroner ruled that a decision did not need to be made immediately. Several representatives, notably Brian Dean of behalf of the Police Federation of England and Wales, were already in contact with the Registrar’s office at the Supreme Court, regarding the urgent nature of the appeal and the prospects of permission being granted, or otherwise, before the end of March, 2021. At which time a more informed decision regarding the start date of the ten week inquest, presently listed for 21st April, 2021, could be made.

Mr Dean very helpfully took the coroner through the various Court Rules and Practice Directions and pointed out that, even with everyone working expeditiously towards a resolution of the permission appeal, a strict reading of the timetable meant that it was perfectly possible that the decision would not come in time.

The submission of Hugh Davies QC, on behalf of the Chief Constable of West Yorkshire Police, that the inquest hearing opened in April and would be adjourned if the permission appeal was successful, did not find favour with either Mr Willems QC or the coroner himself. The latter expressed particular concern over the impact that a delay of some months, in those circumstances, could have on the jury.

Various estimates were advanced as to when and where a re-listed inquest might be accommodated, bearing in mind a large, ‘special measures’ courtroom (or courtrooms) is a specific requirement. They ranged from eighteen months to two years. The coroner pointed out that, even in the pre-virus epidemic era, there was a gap between the previous date vacated in November 2019 to the present listed date of 17 months.

A planned visit by the coroner, and the interested parties, to Bradford Crown Court is set to go ahead on 3rd March, 2021. Court staff are limiting the numbers attending on that day due to the virus epidemic. Arrangements regarding the positioning of TV screens, witness box screening and entry to/exit from the court in order to preserve anonymity of police witnesses will be amongst the topics discussed. Mr Willems QC told the hearing that a risk assessment had already been carried out by Crown Court staff, or those acting for them in that connection. Partitions between jurors and between counsel are already in place.

Mr Longstaff wen on to say that West Yorkshire Police had kindly offered to prepare the inquest hearing bundle which runs to over 6,000 pages. It will be distributed electronically in ‘pdf’ form. This represented a considerable saving to the coroner’s team, and their host authority, City of Bradford Metropolitan District Council, both in terms of outsourcing cost and saved hours internally.

Some of those savings look as though they will be re-invested by the Council in making a rolling transcript of the proceedings available throughout the inquest hearing. Mr Willems QC noted that such a resource would be useful to the coroner when summing up and, most particularly, the jury in their fact finding role. (Also, it must be said, very useful to members of the press).

Amongst five witnesses who had sought excuse from attendance at the inquest hearing was Christopher Hodgson of the Independent Office for Police Conduct. The IOPC had queried whether his evidence was necessary and, if so, could his statement be read to the jury.

By an extraordinary coincidence, the IOPC released an important statement concerning the findings of its investigation into the controversial death of another Huddersfield man, Yassar Yaqub, on the very same day as the pre-inquest hearing (read more here). The much delayed inquest touching that death, which followed a ‘hard stop’ shooting by police marksmen, is set to be heard in January, 2022.

Page last updated: Sunday 21st February, 2020 at 0835 hours

Corrections: Please let me know if there is a mistake in this article. I will endeavour to correct it as soon as possible.

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This article contains public sector information licensed under Open Government Licence v3.0 (read more here).

© Neil Wilby 2015-2021. Unauthorised use, or reproduction, of the material contained in this article, without permission from the author, is strictly prohibited. Extracts from, and links to, the article (or blog) may be used, provided that credit is given to Neil Wilby Media, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Author: Neil Wilby

Former Johnston Press area managing director. Justice campaigner. Freelance investigative journalist.

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