This High Court decision and resulting guidance from the Chief Coroner provides new guidance in relation to documentary inquests, with an emphasis on explaining 'Rule 23' to families.
Ms Putney took her life in a Novotel in Salford in May 2015. She had been battling serious mental illness since her teenage years, had recently telephoned a counsellor and mentioned suicide, and a handwritten note was found beside her body. The Coroner's office provided witness statements and a police report to her husband (Mr Mueller) and asked for consent to undertake an inquest on the documents alone (without any witnesses giving oral evidence) in accordance with Rule 23 of the Coroners (Inquests) Rules 2013. Mr Mueller agreed and the Area Coroner completed the inquest in September 2015, reaching a conclusion of suicide.
Unfortunately, the police report had summarised and interpreted part of the suicide note as being addressed to an unknown woman who was having an affair with Mr Mueller. The Coroner read out the police report at the inquest, but did not read out the suicide note itself. After the inquest there were media reports which said that Ms Putney had killed herself because her husband had been having an affair.
In challenging the inquest, Mr Mueller said that the second part of the suicide note was in fact written by Ms Putney to herself (not another woman), and that he had not been having an affair. In addition, he was not told by the Coroner that he could object to parts of the documents being read out (i.e. the police report). Mr Mueller requested that the inquest be quashed and a new investigation ordered.
The High Court (including the Chief Coroner) concluded that the combination of not being told that he could object to parts of the documentary evidence, together with the suicide note itself not being read out (so that the error in interpretation was not identified), amounted to an irregularity. However, this did not make it necessary or desirable in the interests of justice for a new investigation to be held, as there was no real risk that justice had not been done and there was no challenge to the conclusion. The court stated that:
"Justice for Mr Mueller has, however, been achieved, by the unequivocal endorsement of his position which I hope will, in this public judgment, serve to repair the damage that has been done by the error made by Det. Insp. Sellar, repeated at the inquest and so widely published. On any showing, this judgment sets the record straight and I trust that the press will reflect that fact in the reporting of this judgment".
The court offered a number of observations which are summarised below:
- Documentary inquests are to be welcomed in clear circumstances (as they were here).
- The Coroner should indicate in advance which documents are likely to be read or summarised at the public hearing, and which parts will not be read out.
- In cases involving suicide, it is particularly important to indicate whether any note has been found, what it says and whether any other evidence is connected to the note that may shed light on its contents.
- The family should be alerted to the contents of any statement or document that may cause them concern.
- Where a Coroner does not intend to include part of a document, and the family do wish it to be included, the Coroner should have regard to their wishes (subject to relevance).
There are varying practices across the country as to which documents are sent out to unrepresented families when asking them to agree to a documentary inquest. Sometimes this is because of the content of the documents and the need to be sensitive to those who are bereaved. It is not currently common practice to identify in advance the parts of those documents that will actually be read. This is likely to require more planning by the Coroner before the hearing. In relation to suicide notes, there are Coroners who generally avoid reading them out. However, in this decision the court said "it is unarguable that the content of the note clearly written contemporaneously with the suicide was relevant to the purposes of the inquest and, if that be so, it was mandatory that it be admitted as evidence". This may result in suicide notes being read out in future, or perhaps admitted as evidence but only a few sentences read out (if indicated in advance).