R (on the application of Dyer) v Assistant Coroner for West Yorkshire (Western) [2019] EWHC 2897 (Admin) 

This article originally appeared in Issue 4 (March 2020).

Mr Hall, a black man, died shortly after being in police custody and being restrained. The police officers called to give evidence at the inquest into his death applied for anonymity and to give their evidence from behind screens. The anonymity orders were not contested but the applications to give evidence from behind screens were opposed by Mr Hall’s family. 

The basis for the application to give evidence from behind screens was to prevent the officers from being identified, particularly by a Mr Qassim Hall. Qassim Hall is a brother of the Deceased and has a lengthy criminal record. There was evidence before the coroner that the police officers were genuinely fearful of what Qassim Hall might do to them or their families, if they were identified. The coroner therefore allowed the officers to give their evidence behind a screen, such that they were not be seen by the public, including Mr Hall’s family. 

Mr Hall’s family alleged that the use of screens was a significant incursion into the principle of open justice which should be no more than was necessary. They argued that observing witnesses was an important part of the investigative process, that preventing the witnesses from being see undermined public confidence in the process, and not being able to see the witnesses reduced the prospect of catharsis for the deceased’s family. 

Jefford J found that the coroner had undertaken too limited a balancing exercise in considering whether to grant the application. She found that the coroner only balanced two considerations – whether the quality of the evidence is likely to be improved by the use of screens against whether the effectiveness of questioning will be impeded by the presence of a screen. She went on to say at [37] that: 

“That, in my judgment, is too limited a balancing exercise. If those were the only factors to be taken into account, it would have the almost invariable consequence that if a witness genuinely expressed fear but the family of the deceased were able to cross examine, screens would be directed. That would not, and in the present case does not, take into account the interest that the public and the family has in seeing those who may be implicated in the death give evidence – an interest the coroner had already recognised – and it takes no account of the fundamental importance of public confidence in the process of the inquest particularly where the death involved raises issues of more general public concern.” 

Jefford J went on to conclude that the coroner’s decision was also irrational. She found that the coroner had failed to consider whether the police officers’ fear of Qassim Hall was valid. She found that the coroner had not considered the nature and context of Qassim Hall’s offences and events since the Deceased’s death. The coroner also failed to consider the risk of anonymity orders being breached by those who may be able to identify the officers. The coroner also did not consider the position if the family (but not the public) were able to see the officers and the attendant risks. Thus the decision to permit screens was quashed but only to the extent that the screens prevented the identified family members from seeing the officers give evidence.